During the War
The room at the bottom of the stairs is wide and long. Everywhere children are asleep on mattresses spread across the concrete floor. A young woman in uniform sits in a chair facing the door. On her lap rests a rifle, and in her hand she holds a book. She has watched Eva descend the iron stairway into the bomb shelter.
The two women come together now in the center of the floor.
“I cannot go to visit your grandfather today,” Eva says, “because I am very busy.”
The woman with the book and the gun is speaking at the same time. “Have you gone to my grandfather’s house yet?” she asks. “He waits for your visit.”
The room has a low ceiling. Yellow and orange balloons float like zeppelins in the heavy underground air.
“What did you say?”
“What did you say?”
“I ask if you go to see Shmuel,” the guard tells Eva.
Their conversation wakes a redheaded boy, who sits forward and rubs his eyes with both hands. The women lower their voices.
“Today is the day for your visit to my grandfather. He waits for you.”
Behind the guard more children are fidgeting and moving in their sleep. Eva sighs. “I will go now,” she promises.
The Norwegian girl steps carefully over mattresses. As she moves past the last sleeping child, the tip of Eva’s nose is tickled by a string hanging from a balloon. She stops at the darkened stairs. The young Israeli woman who is guarding the nursery has followed Eva to the door.
The rifle-carrying soldier has dark skin. Dark hair. Dark eyes. Full red lips, and white-white teeth.
“You came here for something?” the soldier asks.
“I wanted to see the children.”
“That is not possible,” she says. “They sleep now.”
Eva climbs the stairs and starts down a narrow dirt road bordered by a razor-wire fence. The kibbutz sausage factory is in the distance, next to the ruins of a castle built during the Crusades. Rings of greasy smoke are rising from the factory chimney.
Past the castle Eva comes to an area of the kibbutz where the houses are all small and neat, resting in the shadows of the Lebanese hills. One house is more perfect than the others. The grass in front of the door is greener, the flowers brighter. The music coming from the windows is classical. Eva climbs onto the porch and magically the door of the little house opens before she can knock.
An old man bows and leads Eva inside. No one has ever bowed to Eva before, except as a joke. Except this old man. Every Wednesday he bows and invites Eva into his home.
“How are you, Shmuel?”
“I am well.” Shmuel bows again. “Why,” he asks, “would I not be well?”
“I have just seen Laliv in the nursery.”
“I know,” he says.
The old man sits down opposite Eva. Behind him a rifle leans against the wall. On the far side the living room of his tiny house leads to an open dining room. The open dining room leads to the open kitchen. The far side of the kitchen is the closed door to the bedroom.
The old man is the kibbutz shoemaker. On this kibbutz also live a doctor, a mechanic, an accountant, and two electricians. The kibbutz is a little town, except here everyone eats together in a communal dining hall and here no one has many possessions. In truth the old man is too old to work much anymore. In truth the people of the kibbutz have been buying shoes in the city for many years. The best that the old man can do now is sometimes fix a pair of shoes. Even that is difficult because modern shoes are made to be used and thrown away. Not repaired. But shoemaking is the trade that he learned when he was a boy in Europe.
Once a week, Eva comes to the old Jew’s house to drink tea and eat fruitcake. Today Shmuel serves banana bread instead. The bread is good but today the old man offers coffee to Eva, not tea. The coffee is Nescafé. Bad tea can be okay, Eva has discovered, but bad coffee is always terrible. To be polite she smiles as she drinks.
“It is to your taste?”
“Yes,” she lies.
Sometimes Eva and Shmuel communicate only with their eyes. They sit and drink and look at each other. The old man can speak Hebrew and English and Polish. Eva speaks Norwegian and English. They both know German. But in this gingerbread house German is not spoken.
Shmuel is wearing short sleeves. He has faded numbers burned into the skin of his arm. All the old people on the kibbutz wear short sleeves. Even in winter. They all have concentration camp numbers burned into the flesh of their arms. Their arms want you to know. “I survived,” is written on their arms.
Eva is already very knowledgeable on the subject of concentration camps. She saw a documentary about the Holocaust before she left Norway. She knows all the names of the Nazi camps. Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka. Auschwitz. Dachau. Dachau was not one camp. “Dachau” was the name of a system of more than 100 camps spread across Germany.
The old man was born in Poland. Probably he would have gone to Auschwitz. The film did not tell Eva that. She already knew.
“How are your studies of the Jewish people?”
“Have you learned yet what is the definition of a Jew?”
The old man laughs. “Me neither. Do not ask. I cannot tell you.”
“How,” he inquires, “was Sinai?”
“Good. Hot. Very hot.”
“Sinai is always hot.”
“You have been there before?”
“Yes.” The old man smiles ironically. “One time,” he says.
“Yes. During the war.”
“During the war,” Eva repeats to herself. She makes a mental note about the use of language in the Middle East. In Norway the old people say “after the war” but here in Israel everyone says “during the war.” After the war… during the war. The Norwegian girl is confused. She never knows what war everyone is talking about. There have been so many.
“The war, you said. Which war?”
The old man is slicing fresh-baked banana bread. He does not answer.
Each of the old man’s fingers, Eva notices as he serves her, is shaped like a tool. His index fingers are sharp-tipped like chisels. His middle fingers are round like drill bits. His ring fingers are rough like files. The little fingers are curved like gouges—thumbs, hard and flat like hammers.
The old man’s shoulders are packed tight with blocks of muscle. His neck stretches from the far end of one shoulder to the far end of the other. He still has all of his hair. It is all gray and falls across his eyes like a boy’s hair falls across a boy’s eyes.
“I am in love,” Eva announces after a moment.
“Yofi. That is good.” The old man opens his ears again. “Who is he? A kibbutz boy? A Jewish boy?”
“He’s American. I do not know if he is Jewish. Perhaps he is Jewish. I have never asked him.” Eva takes a slice of the banana bread. The bread is heavy and moist in her fingers. “No, he is not Jewish. I remember now. He told me once that he is a Catholic. But he does not visit the church.”
“That is like me,” the old man laughs. “Everybody tells me I am a Jew, but I have never been to synagogue.”
A bird lands on the coffee table in front of Eva. The bird is a tafara. This tafara is mostly red and green, and has a thick neck like the old man’s.
“How is Habibi?”
“Good. His health is good like me. Soon I will teach him to sing.”
“I am not so certain. He is a wild bird.”
“You found him outside, is that not right?”
“He fell from his mother’s nest?”
“Yes. Almost. In reality he was pushed by his brothers and sisters. I watched with my own eyes. This was very brutal.”
“All right. He was pushed. But he is born to be wild.”
“You cannot teach a wild bird to sing.”
“We will see.”
“I suppose. Yes.” Eva shrugs. “We will see.”
The Norwegian girl shrugs again to demonstrate her skepticism. This bird is never happy, she has noticed. It shits everywhere. The bird shits on the furniture that the old man built with his own hands. The bird shits on the clean tile floor of the kitchen. During past visits to Shmuel’s house Eva has watched the bird fly into windows. After hitting the windows the stunned bird falls to the floor. The bird gets up and flies into windows again. Then the bird shits again. Lately the old man is not so happy either.
This afternoon Habibi appears more friendly however. On the table top it hops closer. The old man offers crumbs from his plate but the bird, it seems, wants the whole loaf.
The tafara jumps up onto the loaf of banana bread. The bird pecks once or twice at the soft brown crust. The bird shakes its feathers all around, and becomes completely motionless. The bird shits on the bread.
The old man lunges toward the coffee table. The old man is too old to move so fast but he moves fast anyway. He swings his peasant’s hands wildly in the air, but the bird flies away. The old man curses in Polish or Hebrew, Eva is not sure which. Shmuel looks at the birdshit which is silver like mercury. Using a napkin the old man tries to clean the shit from the loaf of bread but the birdshit spreads like butter. The old man takes the plate of bread back into the kitchen.
Now begins the most important part of the weekly tea ceremony. Shmuel returns and puts a small glass on the table in front of Eva. Shmuel goes to open one of the cabinets that he built with his own hands. From the cabinet he takes a bottle. On its perch atop the cabinet the bird turns its head to watch. The label on the bottle says it contains Polish vodka. That, Eva knows, is a lie.
Each week that Eva is here the bottle is twice as dusty as the week before. Each week that Eva comes here the bottle is completely full. Anyone except Eva might think that this bottle of Polish vodka is magic. But Eva’s father in Norway also has a magic bottle. Eva’s father once received a gift of very expensive Scotch whisky. Eva’s father drank all the expensive whisky himself. Then he refilled the bottle with cheap American whisky and served the cheap whisky from the expensive bottle to his friends. “People drink with their eyes,” Eva’s father told her. These days Shmuel can only drink with his eyes. He is a voyeur. The kibbutz doctor only allows him to watch others drink.
Shmuel smiles like a pervert as Eva raises the vodka to her lips. “L’bria!” he says, toasting Eva’s health with his own empty glass.
Eva looks at the watch on her wrist as she opens her mouth to drink. It’s late. Eva swallows the whole contents of the glass in one gulp. Too fast. Too, too fast. Swallowed so quickly the vodka tastes like kerosene.
The old man’s smile disappears. His bright eyes blink. Shmuel looks disappointed. Too fast, he agrees silently. There has been no pleasure for him in this.
Eva places the glass on the table. She stands up.
“Thank you,” she says. “I must go.”
Eva is already moving towards the door. The old man rises and says goodbye; he moves so slowly. He pulls open the door and Eva steps outside. The old man remembers to bow. The door is still open. Eva begins to run down the road. Shmuel remembers to bow but he has forgotten to be careful. A splash of color like a red-green-black-and-white rainbow passes over his head. The rainbow is the tafara.
The bird flies to the big cedar tree in the center of the front yard. The old man comes outside and stands on his new lawn where yellow flowers are beginning to bloom.
Eva turns around. She looks up. The bird is high on a branch in the tree. The bird is looking down at the head of the old man. The bird shits once more.
The shit falls at the old man’s feet, as the bird begins to sing.
Contributing writer Lucius Lomax is working on a novel and welcomes feedback from readers. (http://www.luciuslomax.com)