Long Haul

by Elisha Porat,
translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks.

I find myself these days getting ready for the long haul. I am seized early each morning by a strange fever of activity, as if I had spent all the night making plans instead of sleeping. How does a man ready himself to go down this long road? Well, first off, I have to rid myself of non-essentials and chuck those things I've accumulated that are now merely dead weight. I root nervously through shelves of books, skipping over the few that I love. I pull them from the case, weigh them in my hand and hastily put them back. So be it. Fate is on your side. You are not a heavy burden. On the contrary, I would find it difficult to set out on this long road without you.

But I am heartless towards the others. Their hours of grace, in which they were allowed to remain on the shelf, have gone. I no longer need them. Better that they make their way to another place, and quickly, before I mourn them. Books, after all, are not expendable. They merely change residences all their lives. From my room, they are moving to the little library recently established at a remote kibbutz in the south. Fine. May they live their lives of boredom forever. I have no need for them just now and their pathetic lives do not appeal to me these days. I want to start on my path clean, free and empty, unsaddled with debts, leaving behind neither letters nor notes. I have seen jottings, forgotten after their authors set out on the long haul, put to ugly use. I have an urge to sweep the desk, emptying the drawers that keep filling themselves. What hope is there for this world? What hope is there for me, preparing myself to take leave of it?

Some days ago, I was visited by one of my few friends, an old man who had been a scintillating intellectual in his youth only to devote all his talents to building his kibbutz. Only now and then did biting verses fly from his barbed pen, as if he could not hold them in.

"Parochial work," I sadly offer him my opinion of the samples he has brought me. Pieces whose proper home is an in-house newsletter, the appropriate section of a regional newspaper or one of those local gazettes that recently have sprung up. They could be sent to a national paper as a reader's letter, or enclosed in a box, offered as a whimsy with apologies tendered in advance.The epigrammatic poems he has been writing lately drip with oppressive gloom. I sit across from him, his face encased in the stricken skin of an old man. His lively eyes implore me, don't be harsh, judge the work kindly, leave him hope that he is bequeathing works of taste. We say nothing of this aloud but we both well know what is at stake here. He is putting his writings in order before departing this world and embarking on the long haul. He asks my opinion, yet hints that these are the things he intends to leave behind, the ones he wants me to compile for his memorial book. He points again and again to the epigrams on one line. Afterwards, we look for the exact Hebrew equivalent of the foreign word "epitaph."

"Deep despair pervades what you've written," I tell him. "As though your whole life didn't amount to anything, neither the kibbutz you built with your own hands nor the long years you sacrificed when you could have been living a scholar's life. What consolation are you offering me or leaving your readers? What comfort is there for you before you set out on the long haul?"

He points to a short poem scrawled in his own hand. I notice at once that some vowels are missing, others wrong. He apologizes for giving too little study to Hebrew and Judaism. Buber, old Martin Buber, had inspired him to immigrate as a boy. He did the rest on his own but never had the time to finish his required subjects. What were these minor vowel errors compared to what he had built? What were rebellious Hebrew words defying his aged hand compared to the orchards he had planted? To his surprise, his native language, in all its riotous vitality, had recently come back to him. He hungered for translations, made the trip to the library and then, after a period of many years, again read translations of the great poets he had loved as a boy.

In all of them, he had no trouble seeing the line that divided their poems. He wondered if it matched the line that divided their lives.  As though from a point where they had stopped for a moment in their course, they suddenly noticed another side of their lives, a fateful crossroads. Until then, they had made steady progress, modest but constant. In the period's final years, this progress leveled off. There are moments when you mistakenly believe that things will go on like this forever and ever. But no, you have made a small mistake, an optical illusion it seems to you at first. Later, when you sharpen your gaze, you can see what it really is: it's no optical illusion. Here is where the inevitable decline begins. The slope, like any slope, keeps getting steeper. It has its own gravity, which the first glance sometimes fails to reveal.

Here is where the difference appears between those who, yielding to the flow, race to the end unhindered, and those who believe that their lives are still in their hands, who delay their submission without realizing what is happening around them or understanding who is pulling them down on the long haul.

The translators, though diligent and skilled, simply missed this dividing line. This, one may say, is his private discovery. But he takes almost no pride in it, which is a pity, since it could completely change the meaning of the poems. Is it possible that they were so blind? Is it possible that they impatiently rushed to the end of the poems without realizing where the crossroads veered, the turning point of the poets' own lives? But he saw it, an old, old man whose keen mind's eye has not disappointed him. Not a single twisting curve has escaped him. No dust has gathered under him. Just as he did as a boy, he sat at his desk and squeezed some moments of illuminating translation out of his work time. It's nothing. Instead of ending his time writing tiresome letters to newspaper editors, he can produce fresh translations of the classic poetry that was the beacon of his youth before he immigrated. "You can't translate when you're young," he said with a weary smile. "You don't have the poet's broad view of life."

I find his words very depressing. They fuse unseen into my urge to throw things out. That is, even the books that I've loved and faithfully kept over all the years are destined for a second reading. Over them, too, hovers the danger of removal from the shelf. I'll need to pull out my drawers again and burn unimportant letters I have no interest in leaving behind. I'll need to go to the trouble again of depositing the few letters I value in the archives in Tel Aviv. But I'll have to be quick about it, or I'll change my mind and destroy those, too. The can I've set up in the garden for my bonfire is still there. My wife has often complained about the suffocating smoke filling our little room and the bits of ash which, carried by the wind, cover the lawn around our home, settle on the bushes and blacken the porch. One young man, a diligent worker at the factory who flew past my bonfire on his bike, said that I shouldn't use fire like a caveman. "Thank God we have much more modern equipment for getting rid of documents," he said. "Haven't you heard of high speed paper shredders? "

I return to the old translator. His fingers twist without rest. He has mixed up the folders placed before me. From the file marked "translations," I draw out occasional poems and epigrams that he published in the newspapers. From the file inscribed "miscellaneous," I take out impassioned translations of classical verse. I switch the files when he isn't looking. It would be a sin to embarrass him. He traveled a long, tiring road before reaching me and is getting ready for a trip much longer even than that. I have no right to disturb his plans even though his trembling hands and the skin peeling off his face make me want to cry out in protest, "Haven't you heard of a high speed shredder, gramps? Don't you hold out any hope? What will you tell your grandchildren when they ask?"

"Yes, that is my one hope," he answers me. "The babies, the little grandchildren. By all means, peek at the poems and see for yourself. They are my sole comfort, my last hope. They are just beginning the journey I am about to finish. My meager experience will go into the travel bag they'll sling over their backs. That is, indeed, my one consolation. A desperate, unflagging attempt to create a new man." Tears well up in his glowing eyes. Memories of his grandchildren come to him. He knew in his heart that the image of his grandchildren would go with him no matter how well he prepared himself for the long haul. It won't be easy to let go of them.

They are the sole comfort of his pitiful life, his one hope before he goes down the road of no return.

Their sweet voices anchor him to the spot. Their darling squeals leave him mute with happiness. Their laughter turns his legs to lead. Each memory of them adds an unforeseen weight to his body.

He sits silently before me. His hands, spread on the desk, have stopped their trembling. I, too, say nothing. I see that firm decisions are slowly dissolving. It seems that I still don't know everything. Even my own decision to ready myself to make the long haul may yet be changed.

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