Elisha Porat Room
A BULLET FIRED
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
I was very worried. Several weeks had already passed since my heart attack and I wouldn't regain some of my strength for several more. Later, through all these days, I wouldn't move my body or build my muscles. I could only stretch out utterly helpless on the bed, unable to rise from it. I realized again what a poor guide fear makes. Without properly considering the matter or even asking my doctor, I rashly started doing the vigorous exercises I had done when I was well. But I couldn't raise my body. I couldn't fool it this time. The excruciating pain that immediately resulted cut me down to size.
My hands hurt so much I couldn't even change the station on the little radio by my bed. My legs ached to the point that every trip to the bathroom and the shower became a journey of affliction. I didn't know which way to turn my back. It hurt all over, from my neck to my buttocks. My muscles became tight and defiant, constantly sending sharp jolts of pain through me. Each time I lowered by legs from the bed and tried to put on my slippers, I fell back exhausted on the verge of tears.
I lay awake at night. My back ached and I couldn't fall asleep. If I say that I secretly cried in the faint glow of the bedroom night light, I wouldn't be exaggerating. Piteous, pathetic citing spells, anxiety, unanswerable questions. I shifted from the bed to the armchair. I heaped up pillows and built a rampart of blankets on the sides of the bed. Nothing helped. I couldn't find a position in which my body could sink into sweet sleep. And if I did find such a position for several minutes, fresh, new aches, unlike any before, would immediately assail me. These new messengers of pain bedeviled me ad nauseam until I broke into sudden, dry, body-
How long will I suffer like this? I asked myself. How long will I remain this shell of a man too weak to control his limbs? And who had assured me that things would change for the better? It seemed to me during my hours of agony that my condition actually was worsening. How will I be in another month? Next year? Will this torment and humiliation go on forever?
Then I remembered the small revolver hidden in the secret dresser drawer. A beautiful piece, an Italian, 22 caliber longbarrel model. I don't know why I thought of the gun during my tortured nights. Sure, I'd had perverse thoughts unclear even to me. I have a fear, which I hesitate to commit to print, that my time as a healthy man in full control of his body had not only passed but brought to mind the hidden revolver. In several open but disjointed talks with my wife, I wondered whether the little gun had been moved. These questions obviously worried my wife, who immediately warned me against wayward thoughts and rash actions. But she didn't touch the gun. Was it different for her, too, to accept the changes in my body? Had she still failed to notice the lost use of my limbs? Had she never considered, as I had, the great significance and danger of the small gun in the dresser? Did she suddenly have the same inkling I had of new depths that had never crossed her mind before? Had she finally realized, just as I had, the need to put this threatening toy out of the sick man's reach?
The gun, however, was in its place. No one had touched it, swathed in the same old shirt of soft, fraying cloth, since the day I'd returned from the hospital. Since the gun was wrapped in cloth, I couldn't work the holster zipper. The clips were strewn nearby. I'd forgotten only the location of the box of bullets, but the ammunition didn't interest me during my first days home from the hospital. I was as happy with the small gun as a boy with a prize toy. I drew the pistol from its wrapping, wiped away the fine layer of grease and discovered anew a gun fancier's pleasure in weapons. The Italian workmanship was splendid, the staining flawless, and the ease of grip excellent. With few parts, no gun was simpler to take apart and assemble. Cleaning the gun, disassembling it and examining the trigger and sights distracted me from my pain.
I suddenly brimmed with so much renewed strength, I was able to lay down on the edge of the bed across from the large mirror in the bedroom wardrobe. Relieved of my suffering, I simply indulged myself in a childish love of my revolver. I gripped it in my hand, waved it, spun it around my extended finger. Where had all my pains gone? I behaved like a teenager. Behind the shelter of my locked door, I carefully aimed the gun in my small room at the image of myself reflected in the mirror. I closed one eye, opened it again and then squeezed the trigger ever so slowly. After that, I inhaled deeply into my chest and then vigorously blew the air out of my mouth just as I had seen in the movies, when you don't know whether to be awed by the wanted man's bold heroics or to laugh at his infantile terror.
Finally, I pulled the trigger. A bullet suddenly discharged and my reflection in the wardrobe mirror splintered. The bullet pierced the thin wooden door, rustling my wife's dresses hanging inside the cabinet. From the bedroom wall came a muffled thud. Did this actually occur during my recuperation or might I here be confusing this with an embarrassing event that occurred some years earlier? Inside the wardrobe swirled a small cloud of dust. In panic, I imagined smoke also rising from the barrel of the revolver in my hand. But my eyes deceived me. The acrid smell of gunpowder permeated the room with the aroma of scorched cloth.
Did I really turn pale when my wife wrenched the smoking gun from my hand? Were my hands really shaking? Did I grind my clenched teeth on one another? Was I laboring to breathe? Has my small pistol been absent from the room since that unfortunate discharge?
It seems to me that all these things and more are nothing but memories. Long ago, in the peak of health, I once really did sit opposite the large mirror in the wardrobe, cleaning my gun after an enjoyable time hunting rabbits in the groves. I was careless for some reason, loaded the gun and aimed it, entirely in jest without any sinister intentions, at my forehead reflected in the mirror. I forgot loading the gun, drew a bead and fired. Or perhaps that didn't happen. So many years have passed and my memory often misleads me. And there are no marks in either the room or the wardrobe. It's impossible to recognize anything since the renovation. Maybe I only wanted to clean the barrel. Maybe I put a round in the chamber and forgot that I was at home, not in the groves nearby horsing with a friend. And maybe it was a case of plain criminal negligence here, you can call it unintentional recklessness. I just don't remember anymore.
But my wife's best dresses, in fact, were damaged. Luckily for us, the concrete back wall blocked the bullet. Oh, I diligently searched for it that day, but I didn't find it. I remember removing all the dresses and shirts and emptying the wardrobe. Bored in the wall was a small hole spewing a puff of plaster. I should have given the wardrobe a good cleaning to wipe it from view and erase the conspicuous traces left by the mysterious shooting.
Several weeks later, I happened to find the flattened lead slug. I was sitting down, excited as usual by the sight of my wife's body while she dressed in front of the pierced mirror. As she shook her blouse, the bullet dropped to the floor. I pounced on it at once, thrust it before my wife's astonished eyes, and said, "You see, we've rounded up the last witness to the crime." I kept it for a long time in my drawer among the odds and ends I've saved from critical periods of my life. The holy lira note of a Hasidic rebbe given to me, at the crossing to Lebanon, by young Habadnic members vociferously evading their army service; a checked card with letters I couldn't read, which I received in the Galilee as an amulet from a righteous beggar at Honi's Cave in Hatzor; an old jackknife that I swore I wouldn't pull out of my pocket until the war ended; and other such things. When I started to arrange my drawer some time ago, however, I couldn't find the squashed bullet. Had it known that I would need it so much during my painful months of recuperation, it might have done me a favor and not disappeared somewhere between the cracks.
In my mind, I can't decide whether I harbored a secret, demented notion to perform that quaint act of negligence. Nor do I know whether my sudden need for my small revolver signaled that I was about to do something wicked. I'm not brave enough for that. But my wife clearly remembered the shattered mirror and the burning hole in her dress. My flimsy explanation -- that I had planned to start hunting rabbits in the groves again to aid my recovery -- didn't satisfy her.
Several days after handling my gun, I wanted to withdraw it again from its niche and play with it awhile to distract me during a relapse. The hidden drawer in the dresser, however, was empty. The unzipped holster, made of coarse, stiff canvas, was nowhere to be found. When I asked my wife what had become of my small gun, and whether she could imagine how hurt I was when I discovered it missing, she only said: "Don't worry, it's not lost. It's here. But we've taken it away until you get better. It's alright, you'll find it when you're stronger. We've just moved it to a safe place. So you won't be tempted again, God forbid, to blast your reflection in the mirror."
A DEMANDING REGIMEN
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
At the table in my small kitchen, I'm able to set before me the electronic wristwatch my beloved family gave me about a month before I became sick. I can sit by my green stationary pad and marvel at length without feeling any movement of the watch hands. This modern timepiece has a dual display. Below the white face marked with the familiar numbers is a digital display of pulsing, flickering seconds and minutes. I also can manage two tasks, perhaps even three. First, I jot down on the page the precise hour and date. Second, opposite the numbers I record the jobs I'm doing. I do the same ones each morning, the same movements of my hands and legs matched to the motion of the watch hands circling in electronic precision. And last, I gloomily ponder how I've fallen -- willingly surrendered myself, to tell the truth -- into the prison of my demanding regimen; how I've unflinchingly been cast into this without even seeking help from my family.
Perhaps I should be more specific at this point. I get out of bed at 6:30. It's early, exercise time in the youth movement days. While still in bed, a moment or two before rising, I stretch myself and roll towards the window. If it wasn't open while I slept, I open it now. I curl my frail body into the pillows, which reek from my incessant nighttime sweating. I inhale and exhale very deeply. Scorning the complaints of my neighbors on the other side of the thin wall, I do extra, take another breath and grunt loudly. I focus myself on my breathing machine, which is barely working. This is neither pleasure nor pain, a sort of total separation from the ominous morning and the wearying day. I close my eyes, opening and shutting every orifice. The fresh, damp air seeping through the cracks in the shutter flows through my body. I follow its course as it refreshes me, from the soles of my itching feet to the thinning hair on my head. Inhaled and exhaled, drawn in and doled out, consumed and absorbed again and again and again.
In the rehabilitation guide that a young friend gave me when I left the hospital, I find a complete philosophy distilled into dry rules. It had never occurred to me that the air flowing through my passages could purify and cleanse me. If I adhere to the prescribed course, but only this one, all my ailments will be cured by breathing in the morning air each day. But if I break the rules, or I'm not careful, God forbid, or say to hell with the directions and ignore them, or worse than that, adopt a program of rehabilitation other than the one in this book, I'm destined from the start to fail and remain tainted. The same air, the same body, the same man lying shrunken in his bed fearing the day compressed between the windows. And yet, just one little thought, one genuine intention, and everything can change, for good or bad. The plan is for everyone, to master evil and make it serve the good. And now, with the reins seemingly in my hands, now that I have the means for complete salvation not only of my soul but of my body as well, will I throw this away?
My bones ache from my morning breathing exercises. For some reason, the pain lingers. I hear a faint creak of bones popping when I suck fresh air from my chest into the hollow of my belly. Am I doing this wrong? It says here clearly that everything turns on execution. Good intentions aren't enough. The entire world could be filled with nothing but good intentions and results still would depend on execution. It makes the difference between the lower world of suffering in which we exist, our daily world of filth and illness, and higher halls of purity that start in a healthy body and end in firmaments never envisioned.
What am I to do? To whom do I turn in my misfortune? Who will still my doubts? And while I suffer through steadying my breathing, my strict regimen has consumed my early waking minutes. Already I must bend over the cracked sink and the leaky faucet and peer again at my face reflected in the mirror. This moment when I stand before the mirror is the most difficult of the entire morning. Gripped by an inexplicable fear, I survey my image in the glass. What has changed in me since last night? Have bad signs appeared in me overnight? And what is the meaning of all these premature wrinkles and blotches? Where is the oversize, up-
Now my breathing, purified by my exercises and toothpaste and mouth rinse, is racing along on its own. Why the hell is the bathroom light bulb so weak? Why, this is where I most need a strong light now. A pure, white glow by which I can contemplate again and again how fearful I've been for no reason, how wrong I've been about the darkness of the wrinkles and the fuzz on my spots. Well, I really do look fine this chilly morning.
On my bed lies a new book that our worried librarian gave me. I haven't managed to read it yet. I did take a quick look at the author's biography. In some books, the author's life story is more interesting that the contents. A remarkable, eccentric writer can grab you instantly at first sight. Someone whose life falls into three clear, distinct periods. Childhood and youth to the age of 20, with a few unsuccessful stabs at writing; then 20 years of hard work and fruitful production; and when he is 40, by my reckoning, childless and prey to dark moods, he abandons himself to his beloved family, which leads him to shelter in a closed institution. There, miraculously, he becomes a hero as the days and years go by. Riches and security are his within the walls. He passed the years in good health, never suffering a serious illness till the day he dies.
How did he maintain his body through all those long years? What preserved his spirit over the course of time? Only one thing: his uncompromising regimen, a daily routine that he obeyed to the letter as he would a religious ritual. Before I became ill, I was quick to mock a writer like that. How pleasant is it to pawn one's freedom for a life confined to an institution? How did he scorn his written work and refuse to be seen with his books? How did he vow never to hold a pen and magnanimously decline the work room offered him by the institution's physician for his writing? Today, however, it is easier for me to respect and even admire him. The way he found precisely the right moment in which to sever a way of life he no longer desired.
How he aimed, fired, and didn't miss. Exactly on the day when he abandoned himself to his family, which placed him within the walls, that is the moment he realized how vapid his writing till then had been and how vain were his literary aspirations. I bow to his greatness of spirit in that submission. He struck at the right moment and didn't leave even a single empty day in his life. And if the plan for his new life had been revealed to him one night, he wouldn't have walked to the mirror above his sink the very next morning after finishing his exhausting breathing exercises. He would have surrendered himself instead with raised hands to the eternal ritual of an exacting regimen.
Yes, I can understand him now. More than that, I can taste some of his twisted pleasures. Without taking a small step towards the other side, no one can understand the exhilaration he can feel from meticulous attention to a daily regimen's smallest details, the satisfaction both spiritual and physical from submitting to a timetable, the joy of humbling oneself before the passage of minutes and the ticking of seconds. True, others, those who remain outside the walls, will shake their heads at him. "A broken man", they'll say of him. A loser, someone who yielded to the terror of life. But I, who am I to judge him? I see him worshiping the narrow confines of his room. I see him gliding over the floor, on his face a look of absolute bliss from the humility of obedience.
I'm not as flawless as he. I still stray frequently from my schedule. I've never been his kind of perfectionist. Careless I was born and careless I remain. But even I, for all that, have started counting my steps when I rush to the dining room early in the morning to perform a daily ceremony: taking the morning newspaper from the rack and carrying a bowl of sweet porridge to my room.
THE ORIGIN OF THE DOUBLE
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
I initially planned at least to start the short story with the words: Please don't tell me what Europe is. For we have seen what the Europeans know how to do. We are the Jews, who are led like sheep on package tours of the other Europe. And then I want to play dumb and ask, did they burn us in ovens an Asia? Did the Asians, billions of people filling a vast continent, burn the Jews? Did the Africans or the Americans? I have the urge to continue ad absurdum, asking, did the Australians? The mind utterly rejects this. The Australians? Have my questions gone this far?
There is something pleasurable in these pointed questions. You, oh wise you, listen to me while I feign innocence in my questions, and the two of us know that the questions are inherently ridiculous. You can't even pose them. But I derive a certain vindictive satisfaction when I say it again: We've already seen what the Europeans know how to do so well. Nowhere else in the world has anyone done this so well. And don't tell us that only the Germans carried out this annihilation. That's too easy. That is a political response that enables us to conduct ordinary political affairs with other nations. It allows us each summer to rush there in droves. On the contrary, the more evidence we have, the more we realize: the Germans were never alone for even a moment.
When my story appeared in the newspaper around Memorial day, an old member came to me with a bitter complaint. That I wrote from boyhood memories, he had no quarrel with that. Each of us has the right to draw from the memories of our youth. But the question was, was this a proper use of that material? what sort of Jew was I, what sort of smart, sassy student, if I didn't even know that the idea of a double was entirely foreign to Judaism?
How could someone like me, eager to print newspaper stories about so grave a subject as the extermination of the Jews in Europe, have failed to learn his lessons? Hadn't I read the works of our sages? Hadn't I sufficiently learned from them the idea of a double had entered ancient Christian tradition in Europe from pagan origins? How had I conceived such a heretical thoughts? And to shame me further in my ignorance, he added that the concept of a double, who accompanies one from childhood through all the joys and sorrows of life, sprang from the ancient Germans, back when their tribes were gathering in dense European forests.
Here is the refutation, he said. You claim you were born with a double, a Jewish boy in Poland who bore your misfortune and went to the ovens in your place. Now look, you cub reporter, not only did you make sentimental and indecent use of this pagan concept, but you ignorantly and unwittingly introduced a Christian, German incarnation of it. Shame of you. If I were in your place, I wouldn't dare send another story to the paper until I sat down to study. Please take care never to display your ignorance in public again. Don't humiliate yourself before the whole world.
I didn't say a word to him. What could I have said? That many people had contacted me, some by letter, some by telephone and some in short notes, to tell me how deeply they identified with it? That some even had said that the short story perfectly expressed what they had felt for many years but had been afraid to reveal? That some readers had even photocopied the story and stored it among their private papers? There was even one woman from a town up north who told me that she would never let the story be forgotten and intended to reprint it in a special leaflet that she publishes in her village each Memorial Day. Yet our old, learned friend's criticism stung me. I realized again how dangerous it is to enter the public domain, where you're exposed to every threat. Anyone who wants to ridicule you does so without checking. Anyone who wants to curse you does it mercilessly. Anyone who wants to insult you insults you, and anyone who wants to preach preaches, and anyone who wants to prove your ignorance doesn't hold back.
I sent the television producer my story, adding several choice comments from my critic. "I imagine," I wrote her, "It was taken in exactly the opposite way I'd intended". The Germans invented the idea of a man and his double, and they also murdered the young Jewish boy whom I described as my double, the one who in his death bore the fate that I miraculously had escaped. She thanked me for the note and wrote that I shouldn't be concerned by any of the censure. The popular approval of my s tory would prove that. She herself had liked the story twice: first in the shade beneath the custard apple tree in my garden during the filming and again when she read it in the newspaper's literary section.
As usual, I went out for a short walk in the afternoon. It was a fine time of the year, the brief weeks between the rainy season and the first hamsin. Back when I was strong and healthy, I would leisurely stroll through the groves. I knew every dirt path and every short-
In a neglected section of the groves, the field hands were burning pruned limbs, from which dark smoke billowed into the clear spring sky. Had the chimney smoke risen like this over the death camp ovens? And then an unexpected moment of revelation struck me, as though I'd been yanked from the sandy ground among the groves and thrust into the snowy fields beyond the electric fences. Around me chimneys towered above incinerator roofs. Smoke covered the low sky, pressing and thickening until it filled the air. No place was free of it. I felt myself choking, my eyes, the smoke enveloping me. As a terrible pressure suddenly crushed me, I looked up into the mass of smoke hovering over the fences. The smoke grew ever thicker, as though drawn from a gigantic pump beyond the cloud cover. The stench was awful, rank and cloying like the odor I'd had to smell in the city across from us, in the blue hills of Samaria, when it fell during the war.
And then, while I was all ruddy and my shirt drenched by a sudden heavy sweat, I felt relieved. In the sky above me spread a hole through which the smoke left with a piercing whistle. From all points of the sky the smoke was drawn, disappearing through the hole. The odor of incineration faded, replaced by a fresh scent on the breeze. I raised my eyes to see the hole bored in the heavens directly overhead. Why do environmentalists make a crazy dash to the south pole? I thought. And there are those doomsday reports of a hole in the earth's ozone layer. Meanwhile, right here over my head during my daily walk on a spring day, all the world's filth has been sucked through a small hole in the sky. For me, there is nothing new in the perforation of the ozone layer. The black sky over the crematoriums was punctured years ago. How else can you explain where all the scorched smoke went? Where did the stench of all that ghastly burning go? And where did the ashes from the incinerated fall? On the pure drifts of snow at the south pole?
The cinders of my double also were pulled through that celestial corridor, so far that I couldn't change places with him when my time comes even if I wanted to. Then, when all this became clear to me with the certainty of revelation, I suddenly was able to finish my daily walk, which I diligently take on the recommendation of my doctors.
BABBLES IN THE NIGHT
Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks
I can't say just when I first saw this fantastic vision, which always appears precisely between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m. Some nights, the nightmare and its after-
I'm not alone in my dream. My mother usually is with me, she too strolling at some distance through the zoo, lost in engrossing conversation with her aunt from Tel Aviv. The minute details of some unsavory family incident, which crops up during their talk with the names of family members and forgotten relatives, excites my adolescent fancy. As she walks off with her aunt, my mother never notices the swarms of Legionnaires rapidly filling the zoo.
Or perhaps that is my absent-
I'm certain that events of my early childhood blend into the dream. The fear of searches carried out by British troops. The terrifying siege of our neighboring kibbutz, Givat-
I return in my dreams to all too familiar features of the landscape: the old kibbutz pickup truck sunk in the sand somewhere east of the collective; deep paths of sand leading into the hills towards the feared village of Kakun; a group of tardy travelers stuck en-route past curfew; darkness, packs of jackals, roving gangs, and worst of all -- a treacherous engine that died in the most dangerous of places. Here I always stop and tarry. There are strange alleys flooded by images streaming from long-
The small band stops to rest and breathe beside the plum tree that once was hit by lightning. This is a familiar spot in my dreams. The east gate of the kibbutz isn't far from here. You can even trade shouts with the guards on the eastern side. The tree is completely charred, its scorched limbs frozen against the night sky. I'm terribly jealous of the children who saw flames shoot forth, followed by a billowing pillar of smoke, when the bolt struck the giant tree. I remember only its blackened skeleton. Occasionally, I ruefully regret having been born only after the fire. The blasted plum tree makes an arresting intersection in my whimsical dreamscapes. East of that point, terror reigns. Nearby lurk the Arab shepherds and packs of jackals run rampant. Then someone takes me by the hand and I'm in the cool sand on which I've landed. With a final effort, walking hard and fast, we must reach the kibbutz. We are wary of the deep shadows in the banana fields and steer clear of anything suspicious, avoiding all sudden movement and noise. Finally, we arrive, sweating but safe and sound, at the eastern gate.
At this point in the dream, I always crack under the tension building within me. I break into childish tears, uttering cries unintelligible even to me. Mercifully, once again I'm gently borne, comforted and caressed and muttering in that cryptic nocturnal language until I fall asleep. Although the language in my nightmares certainly has its own linguistic logic, its meaning is so elusive that I despair of ever comprehending it. To me, this is so much babbling in the night.
In that period between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m., there sometimes appears before me a nightmarish vision of the Ein-
In my nightly dreams, which follow laws over which I have no control, a distant vision often appears: the soft, white limestone path leading to Givat-
I look towards the gate and see my father, Elkeh Yosselevitch, the great, noble Elkeh, stricken with rage and bitterness. Is he the one so startlingly cursing the British soldiers? Is that really his mouth? Is that his tongue? Never in my life had I seen him so savage. The children warn me to be careful because the English are shooting. I'm torn in my dream. I yearn to run to him and warn him, to end his cursing, to be swallowed in his arms. But I cannot move from my place. Bound by the tight unbreakable bonds of my dream, I can only twitch and imagine myself calling, "Dad, Elk, watch out, bullets are flying everywhere. Take shelter. Hide in the shaft of shade behind the bunker". And from now on, in my nightmares of the English siege, which beset me whichever way I turn, the soft, white limestone path to Givat-
I've vowed to myself many, many times that I won't be lazy when i get up during the night; that I'll sit at ny desk and turn on the lamp; that I'll open the drawer and take out a pencil and begin writing in my notebook in an uninterrupted rush while the images I've just seen are still fresh in my mind, while I still bear the odors that enveloped me and my ears still ring with the roar of gunfire and the cries for help. My hands are damp and slippery from the sweat of my dreams. My heart throbs and a persistent, inexplicable tension racks my sleep-
Later, glancing at the shadowy letters darting across my note pad, what I see in the hastily scribbled pages on my desk is not an imaginary Ein-
The Messiah of LaGuardia
Works in this Room copyright © 2001 by Elisha Porat
Copyright © 1995-2001 Ted Warnell. All Rights Reserved