A BULLET FIRED, by Elisha Porat

translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

    When I was sent home after my long hospital stay, my limbs had no strength. My hands had lost their flexibility and the slightest effort hurt. My legs also were very weak.  After walking a few steps in my room or on the verandah, I had to lie down again. Even raising my body onto the bed was difficult for me. I would sit on the mattress and move my leaden limbs, one at a time, towards me and onto the bed.  I needed both hands to lift my legs and both legs to bring in my hands. A friend who saw me in my weakened state said, "Don't give up. You should start strengthening exercises right away so your body won't atrophy."

    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 my 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 wracking sobs, swallowing shameless tears while cursing the modern medicines and my incurable, ancient body. Eventually, I would return to my restless, spasmodic nights.

    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 long barrel 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 had 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 difficult for her, too, to accept the changes in my body? Had she still failed to notice the lost use of my limbs? Had she ever 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 lie 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 I had loaded 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 all right, 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."

(c) All rights reserved.

To Of(f)course  home page                     To Index of this issue.