THE HIGH GLASS WALL, by Elisha Porat translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks.
I'll start with memories. So clear is autumn in Nahal Alexander, you fear that just one inadvertent punch, or a hard and unexpected kick, will shatter this sky-high glass wall. The light changes abruptly and then the clarity plays tricks on you. The Samarian lowlands seem near enough for you to make out mosque minarets, ramps on the new highways, even windows in houses. It was from this spot, where the new footbridge now stands, that the famous archive photo was taken of the little camp of tents each as white as a bathed lamb. In the distance, Samaria's bare hills loom gray and dull in the old photo. Nowadays, towns and villages cover the western slopes facing the coastal plain. But in the picture, dating from the early '30s, the hillsides are still entirely vacant and smooth. Mighty lysthrums suddenly turn violet along the wadi and even a dirty green thicket of raspberry bushes assumes a fresh, invigorating aspect. Now that the long, steamy, suffocating summer has passed, you can fill your lungs with dry, fragrant air. When was the last time we had an autumn like that? Was it perhaps in the late '50s? I used to ride my old bike along the banks. I was starved for the new sights of the season: the cotton harvest, the monotonous drone of the red picking machines, the rows of white cotton plants as far as the horizon. Heaped in carts were mounds of cotton so snowy white you could still see them on crisp fall evenings. In the vineyards, where the grape harvest already had begun, the remnants left to blacken among the withering leaves only accentuated the sudden barrenness of the vines. I would fall in love again with Nahal Alexander, its verdant banks flanked by dirt paths, on days like that. The rush of holidays, the great autumn celebrations, framed the sights in yet another way. The wailing of those days of awe, the tears of Yom Kippur followed by the songs of forgetting of Rosh Hashana and Sukkot, permeated the wadi and purged the soul. In all this there was an imperceptible happiness. On my rides, I could hear a melody of joy that seemed to come from the pleasant hiss of rubber made by my bike tires swishing through the loose soil of the road.
I left the wadi many years ago. When I returned, by train from Tel Aviv to Hadera and then driving a borrowed car through the forest, I told myself that however short my visit (and I hardly had any free time), I would ramble along the banks of the wadi just as I had long ago as a boy. Our children had long since grown up and scattered across the land, my wife was busy with her affairs, and so I could permit myself these few moments to immerse myself again in that long gone, distant sense of contentment. On the run-down limestone road to the fish ponds, a route that for years has played a starring role in my dreams, I saw a couple in exercise outfits jogging steadily out the old kibbutz gate towards the first bridge. They waved hello as I rode past. The man, tall and thin with gray hair, no doubt was a foreign professor on vacation. The woman, who once had been attractive, fleetingly seemed familiar. Their running clothes were by no means plain and they evidently kept in shape. When they were well behind me, I suddenly remembered the woman's name. She'd been born here, then still young had married one of the volunteer workers, a teacher from England whom she had followed when he went back to the private school where he taught. Did they long for Nahal Alexander the way I did? Did she too see the battered limestone road in her dreams? And what about him? Did he remember the white path through the vineyards, between the wadi and the old packing shed, as I do?
On the kibbutz grounds, the autumn routine went on as always. A garbage truck banged the rusting dumpster, delivery men unloaded vegetables and milk from their trucks onto the raised dock behind the kitchen. My kibbutz, the village where I was born, the eternal focus of my longing, seemed to have adjusted to the oppressive summer weather. It felt nothing of what it poured into the air; rank, putrid smoke from the chicken incinerators rose high into the ficus trees. In the heavy, humid, stifling summer air, you could even sniff the stench of sulfur drifting along the coast from the Hadera power station's smokestacks. The joggers I'd met in the fields returned to the residences and children shouted across the lawns. I suddenly felt inexplicably triumphant. I'd survived another brutal summer. I could breathe the clean autumn air, enjoy the bouquet of aromas wafting from the fields and orchards, and feel: that's it, this is autumn, the killer summer has passed. Whether from excitement or lack of sleep, my ears rang with a low buzz. Yet this humming actually sharpened my hearing, and I suddenly heard each bird in the garden, the querulous blackbirds shrieking from the carob trees outside the secretariat offices, the earth working ceaselessly as it coursed beneath the building foundations, the perpetual cracking of the collapsing walls, the deep whir of the refrigerator motors in the milking stalls on the hill, the cows lowing as they struggled to escape the barns, and the soft, rhythmic thuds of the expensive running shoes worn by the couple now jogging past the stable, where they startled the horses peacefully trotting in the yard and set every breeding dog in the paddock barking at once.
I stopped, got off my bicycle and parked it in the shade of the round building that once served as the kibbutz cooling house. The English joggers came by close enough to touch, yet so remote. In an instant, I took in the swaying hips of the woman, whom I'd known when she was a girl, and the wrinkles on the aging English teacher's face. He was huffing, I saw, his lips were dry and he wanted a drink. I followed his glance to the left, towards the parking lot where a gleaming Jeep maneuvered into a space. Through its open left door, a lovely leg stepped down. Bent over my bike, I watched as beautiful Michal, returning from the city, got out in front of the English teacher.
I slowly approached the silent Jeep. She was leaning over the mirror, fixing her hair before slipping on a pair of sunglasses. When she looked at me, I could count the seconds passing before the familiar twinkle lit up her eyes. She wasn't surprised. Yet each time we'd met since that wild night that had made us so close, she still, oddly enough, was slow in recognizing me, as though I'd been erased from her memory bank of faces. As she rose above the Jeep's mirror, I could feel her begin to recognize me. It seemed to start from below, in her legs, and rise to her face until it reached her hands, which were turned to me in greeting. I let go of the bike and came towards her. As the French do, we embraced and warmly nuzzled one another two or three times on the cheeks. There was a time when we really would have kissed on meeting and parting. She even had dared to cling to me once or twice. On one of her visits, synchronized like a pair of lovers, we even had strolled along the lines marked on the parking lot, from the bench at the bus stop to the door of the public laundry. But that was then. It had been a long time since I'd felt the touch I craved.
"Hey, look, Avishai's here, too," she said to me and the entire empty parking lot. "How're your wife and the children?" Fine, fine, I nodded. "And how about Ron?" I added. "Did you bring him with you?" She hooked an elbow around mine. "Yes, of course, Ron came, too. He just went down to say hello to his friends in the garage." We stood that way a moment, our elbows entwined, my eyes blinded by Nahal Alexander's autumn. "But I have only a couple of minutes. I have to drop by the Si'udis. Bring your bike," she said, pulling my elbow. "Walk me to the old timers' house."
I shouldn't force myself to recall what she and I have done. When I look back on the course of events, from the first time we met to our latest encounter, it's as though worms are gnawing at my heart. But I can't prevent the flood of memories from washing over me as it will. All the earlier episodes grab me before I go on. And if this is now the crystalline, heartrending autumn of Nahal Alexander, this is all the time we have. With or without her, all is revealed with a great, aching clarity, like the snow-capped peak of Mt. Hermon far in the distance, which I've sometimes seen from a hill above the wadi. I can't conceal a single detail, nor can any pain conceal itself from me, even if this should be the last time we meet. This clarity allows me no refuge, no corner in which to yearn or pine, no shadows in which to seek shelter.
When was it we first met? 1960? Her boyfriend, the first she'd had, left on a short summer trip to the Norwegian fiords after a going-away party that lasted nearly till morning. Somehow or other, we left the party together and went back to the huts. I already was studying at the Oranim Teachers College near Haifa, Michal talked about getting married. We were about the same age and I'd seen her around many times. But she quite suddenly had bloomed into a beauty and the past didn't count any more. She seemed terribly young that night as we walked through dew-covered grass on the path to the shacks. Her boyfriend, an outstanding officer in one of the elite recon units, had succeeded in his military service far better than I had. No sooner had he returned after his discharge than the army, I'd heard, was pressing him to return to service, even putting pressure on the kibbutz. He had a way of long, amiable talk. There were some pet phrases of his that I always waited for when he spoke. I knew he'd get to them in a moment or two. When he spoke with Michal, it was in the manner of an older, more experienced youth group leader. Word once went around the kibbutz that she'd thrown him out because she couldn't stand his haughty, patronizing air. It was dark around the huts. Frogs croaked raucously in the marsh behind the eucalyptus grove. The chill of morning already hung in the air. I saw her to the netted doorway of her shack. She paused. I groped for the switch and turned on the hall light.
"That's all right," she said. "You can turn off the light." I found the switch and turned off the light. I didn't know what she wanted. She seemed tipsy, swaying on her legs. "Let's go behind the trees," she said. "Maybe we'll see the sun come up." I can barely remember what really happened there at the door to her hut. She might actually have asked me along and we might in fact have wandered through the damp grass to see the day break. Everything is possible. A dark curtain lies between me and that night's events. Too many emotions were at play that night, as they say these days, too many mistakes and misunderstandings. Too much inappropriate touching, too many misguided physical urges. And, in the end, insult and hurt. I leaned against the frame of the mesh door. Her boyfriend, I knew, was off at the Scandinavian fiords for several weeks. I had nothing to fear; but that perhaps was my foolish error. It would be easy to draw her inside the room, I thought. I believed that she willingly would cling to me and together we would find the bed. I might not even have to lead her to it.
"Michal," I said. "Beautiful Michal." She closed her eyes and leaned back. I think I then bent over her neck and kissed it. Her hands signaled me her rejection: no, not now. But I was too confused to let go of her. Then she fell upon me. I felt her lips searching for mine.
The sun rose just then, or meant to rise. The early shift awakened for work in the chicken coops and the barn. Someone switched on the lights in the other section of the hut, a tractor rumbled past on the dirt path. Slipping from my grasp, Michal slowly drew back and away from me. She went to her room and I to mine without speaking with her the way I'd hoped. I never imagined that night would begin a relationship between us that would last, with long gaps, 15 or 20 years. I couldn't take my eyes off her. When she drew back, she might even have shut her eyes again as she fumbled for the door to her room, tripped over a protruding rack of work shoes and nearly fell. At last, to the rattle of dried jacaranda fruit dangling from her curtain, she disappeared behind the door. I knew then I'd lost her. I lay in bed for hours, still dressed, an annoying buzz droning in my ears as I tried to recreate the sense of closeness that suddenly had sprung up between us.
I stopped her momentarily as we crossed the parking lot from her Jeep to the Si'udis' home. "Let's try to remember where we started meeting and where we met the last time," I said. I wanted to stir up Michal. I wanted to say something that would make her look the way she had when she'd stumbled off so pale, her eyes shut, that I'd thought she was drunk. But she was unmoved and her gaze denied my entreaties. She had no intention that clear autumn day of reviving the life we'd lived from one hurried rendezvous to the next. The image of the netted doorway didn't arouse her. Nor did her own phrase, "Maybe we'll see the sun come up," which I repeated in a monotone, have any effect on her. She simply rushed ahead for her visit.
I escorted her to the Si'udis, went inside and sat with her at the nurses' station. On the counter, she put several things she'd brought them - a beautiful bouquet of artificial silk flowers and a box of imported candies. "You can wait for me outside if you like," she said, then walked to one of the rooms. I went outside and sat on the rough stone bench, looking at the squill stalks lining the playground. Here, too, not just on the banks of Nahal Alexander, autumn was felt in all its glory. I told myself at that moment that I was prepared to sit there and wait for her all my life, or what was left of it. Days, nights, the changing seasons, here on this stone bench outside the door to the geriatric home, across from the squills white in the pure air. In fact, I thought, that's how I've lived all my life. It has been one long wait for her, from that dewy morning after the summer party to this morning and all the thousands of days in between.
I got up when she came out. She showed no surprise, as though she'd been sure to find me there waiting for her at the entrance. I walked back with her to the Jeep awaiting her in the parking lot. The carobs outside the administrative offices spread their heavy blossoms, emitting an intoxicating aroma. Birds twittered among the branches and this transparent sheet of glass, the world become a glassworks, soared up from the path on which we walked, rising from the red, interlocking stones below to the distant sky I would never reach. Michal approached the Jeep and, just as before, bent towards the mirror while quickly running her fingers through her hair. "Sorry I don't have a comb for you," I said. Still hunched over the mirror, she looked up and smiled, really smiled, at me.
This was that smile of hers for which I'd have given all the secret spots in which we'd met over the years - the small hotel rooms, the friends' cramped apartment, the rocks on the coast between Dor and Habonim, her own room when Ron unavoidably was late returning from a newspaper assignment. This was the sad smile she used to give me during lambing season as we sought shelter from the pouring rain among the stinking sheep. Thunder cracked, lightning flashed, it was black as night outside, we sweated from the heat of the sheep. Swinging her legs up, she laid them on the thick, wet wool of the bleating ewes - just as in that Turkish film in which an innocent boy lusts for a woman in a cattle car packed with animals on their way to a slaughterhouse outside Izmir.
I remember the radiant flush in her cheeks when I told her how the ewes in rutting season would stand before me, flapping their tails as they waited for me to mount them from behind, as though I were a rambunctious ram burning with pent-up desire. Her blush deepened when I confirmed the truth of those stories in which village boys make love to demanding sheep. Everything is so provocative during rutting season: the heavy heat, the air of licentiousness, the ceaseless acts of love. To my surprise, she wasn't embarrassed. She understood such things happened because people and animals, amazingly enough, sometimes are much alike.
After we and our families left the kibbutz, I saw very little of her. I heard that she'd parted from her first boyfriend and fallen for Ron, the reporter. We did bump into one another once at an informal party at one of the Tel Aviv newspapers. I saw her the instant I entered the room. As pretty as always, a glow in her cheeks, she was speaking to the others around her with her usual enthusiasm. I lowered my gaze and hid behind the woman who would become my wife. Driven by malice and envy, I examined the faces of the men close by her. I could almost guess which of them was sleeping with her and which had succeeded in knowing her as I had. When she saw me a ways off, she stopped speaking and searched my face as though struggling to identify me. Then, breaking through the circle of partygoers, she came up to me, put her arm in mine and shamelessly started to kiss me.
She might as well have announced, "Your attention for a moment, please. This was my lover on the kibbutz." She drew me into the center of the crowd to make clear that once - yes, once, many years earlier, when she had been very young and pure - we might have been lovers for a short time in the kibbutz sheep pen or strolling the green banks of Nahal Alexander or by the little dams of the fish ponds. Ignoring my flustered future wife, and beaming that smile of hers, she took me by the hand and patiently led me from guest to guest, making introductions. When we sat, she leaned over me, appearing to hug me while conversing with others.
After that, she vanished again from my life. I saw her name occasionally in the newspapers. My wife and I went back to the kibbutz, then left again and finally settled nearby. I think that's when she began writing for the newspaper, poetry, stories and silly columns that made her reputation as a bold, free spirit. Someone even told me she was much sought after in certain circles. One winter night, as my wife and I returned from a family funeral, I saw lovely Michal on a platform at the central bus station. She was awash in flowers, the centerpiece of their blossoms. I saw the well-dressed men, some puffing on pipes or smoking cigarettes, thronging around her. They made quite a little commotion about her in public. Still, she spotted me through the dark and the thick pipe smoke, calling me from afar as she tossed me the flowers.
We approached one another warily. I introduced my wife, whom she'd forgotten from the bohemian editorial affair in Tel Aviv. And my wife had forgotten snatching me from Michal's arms back then and thrusting me into the center of the group. I shot a quick glance at the forsaken pipe puffers and cigarette suckers. They looked back at me, curious but contemptuous. Although I pitied them, I knew - oh, how I knew! - what they were feeling just then. When I turned back to her, she was already gossiping with my wife about close mutual friends who had stayed on the kibbutz, moved to the city or left the country. After several emotional separations and reconciliations, she told my wife, she at long last had decided to marry Ron. Yes, Ron, the famous journalist, whom we'd met under entirely different circumstances.
A taxi she'd called for arrived. The driver got out and opened the right side door for luggage. Taking leave of the bewildered pipe suckers and smokers, she kissed them with abandon, hugged them and then disappeared behind the taxi's tinted glass. I saw her, or imagined seeing her, unsling her shoulder bag, spread it expansively on the soft seat and utterly vanish from all of us watching forlornly outside. That odious veil of disdain and disregard, which I knew so well, appeared in her eyes. I knew very well that she had already forgotten us: my wife, me, the pack of dandies encircling her on the platform. As the taxi maneuvered back and forth off the narrow platform, we slowly drew closer to it. It was cold and we jammed our hands into our coat pockets. Like a princess from another world, warm and glowing, she fumbled to open the taxi window until the driver reached back and rolled down the tinted glass. Leaning out into the wintry city, she called us each us by name, omitting no one, in her pampered voice. One of the dandies ran after the taxi shouting, "Michal, you forgot the newspapers and the book," and gave her a bag. As ridiculous as it looked, she stroked his head and appeared to whisper him her thanks, which we were too far away to hear. "'Bye everyone, good-bye darlings," I thought I heard her spoiled voice across the platform. When the taxi was gone, the flowers she'd thrown away at the last moment swirled around the platform. I shut my eyes, I didn't want to watch. One of the men from her coterie stooped to the wet ground and picked up the discarded flowers.
As I sat on the chilly bus with my silent wife, I imagined her image shining through the window. Shining and winking at me, riding across from me in a bubble of pale light, as though seated in another bus alongside us. In my excitement, I unconsciously crushed the bus tickets into a tight wad of paper and stuffed them into the window frame. I don't know why but I was singing to myself the "Wadi Hawarit" song, which the founders of our kibbutz had composed. They had sat in their tent camp on Hadera's hill singing all the night, then stilled their hunger the next morning with oranges filched in the groves beside the fence. Their bellies ached, their bodies were limp with weakness, yet what joyful songs they wrote. The lyrics were painfully vapid and banal, but the tune, which they stole from an old Russian folk song, was so sweet it practically sang itself in your ears. I saw Michal's beautiful face, framed by the bus window, riding beside me through the dark orange groves of Sharon. Without realizing it, I kept returning to the line of the song, "Nahal Alexander, oh beloved Nahal Alexander, whither flow your waters?"
Three years later, I took an express elevator to the eighth floor of a large office building in Tel Aviv. There, in its new suite, an embassy was holding a reception in honor of a visiting poet from the host country. The reading from his new book had already begun. I saw her as I got off the elevator. My old heart skipped several beats from surprise. I went up to her. As usual, she was slow in recognizing me. We shook hands. I wanted to hug her but she said, "Ron's here. He's dropped in on his friend Adi, the yachtsman, who has a fancy office." In her usual way, she put her arm in mine and guided me to the armchairs beside the elevator doors. She was even more beautiful than always. The years had only improved her face and figure.
"Why are you so excited? You see one reception, you've seen them all." True, I was excited and she of course had felt the quiver in my hand. How many such surprise encounters with Michal did life have in store for me? I asked myself. I sat beside her in the armchair, her shoulder against mine. Although she didn't speak, she seemed to be saying, "Calm down, my friend. Take it easy, you old country bumpkin. All these poets put together aren't worth a single hour in the sheep pen with you in rutting season."
Ron was a man of no small ambition. I would read of his doings in the newspaper from time to time. He seemed to have a kind of charisma, a gift for charming people. The papers reported his exotic, apparently undercover trips to every sort of dangerous country in the world. Since writing his memoirs of the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal in the late '60s, he'd had the false image of a "super soldier." This was ludicrous, of course, since he'd never been in combat. He'd always trailed the fighting, a sycophant and bootlicker in the retinue of some valiant general. What kind of warrior can you be planted in the CO's office? And yet the special Memorial Day and Independence Day supplements always carried something by him, some short piece, some revealing interview or a chapter from a new work in progress. Wherever you looked, there was his arrogant announcement that he was about to explode the poor, local literary world with a global bestseller. In his photographs, he always seemed relaxed, imperious, never without a fat cigar jutting from his mouth. Those who knew him said he made a lengthy ritual out of preparing and lighting the cigars. But smoke them? That he rarely did. It's bad for your health. There also were malicious rumors that he had a drinking habit. I once read on the gossip page a mocking description of a "jet of alcohol" squirting from his lips. Friends had stepped back several feet and struck a match; then he had astounded onlookers by exhaling a stream of burning breath. He made sure that this story, and others like it, got around to earn him a name as a "daring bohemian." Yes, her Ron was the "mercurial" type, if you can call it that, and I'd already begun to worry about her. She could never guess how and when he would surprise her next.
Just out of curiosity, I borrowed all three of his books from the kibbutz library. Before lambasting him, as I naturally was itching to do, I had to know what I was condemning. His pathetic writing greatly disappointed me. From first to last, every page of the books gave the loathsome impression of attempting to impress the reader by any means. His first book and possibly the second had been very popular. Foolish critics, who disgraced themselves by treating his work seriously, filled the literary pages with their nonsense. By his third book, however, the reading public realized that he wrote miserably. I don't think the book sold well and copies accumulated in stacks as high as the warehouse ceilings. Quickly grasping his failure as a writer, he switched to the sister field of journalism. His name still continued to appear in the gossip columns. Only now the tattlers had another title for him: Ron the super reporter. Everyone seemed happy.
A band of admiring friends gradually gathered around him. He attracted every kind of shallow publicity seeker, every ne'er-do-well and self-centered hedonist who felt he would go far with Ron the celebrity. "Just hold onto his coattails," one of them was quoted in the papers, "and he'll carry you across the world." Willingly or not, Michal, lovely Michal, became the "queen" of the retinue around him. They worshipped her beauty and aura of mystery while she in return was their soul mate and confidante. She also served Ron himself as an effective publicist and advocate.
Can it be that I actually met them once at some fashionable restaurant in Tel Aviv? Yes, it's beginning to come back to me, I think I did. The restaurant was at the end of Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff Streets, not far from the old city port. It was afternoon, as I recall, when someone in the restaurant called my name as I walked past. I went inside and immediately saw their table. You couldn't miss the table. Ron held court in the center of the group, the smoke from his cigar billowing over their heads. Leaning against the wall, Michal looked tense in her seat. She might have been the one who had hailed me through the open doors but I can't swear it was her voice. Had she summoned me to rescue her from the band of rogues around her? A sudden, inexplicable fear for her safety fleetingly passed through me. Wearing the de rigueur ragged denim suit, Ron as usual was posing as an American intellectual, just as he appeared in the famous photos circulated at the time in the art scene journals. A short army jacket of faded khaki, the emblem of our rebel artists, was draped as required over the back of a chair. He spoke to his mesmerized followers, puffed on his fat cigar and blew the smoke over their heads. I'm sure he heard Michal call me. I'm also sure he knew even then who I was. Even so, he didn't bother to turn his head. He neither looked at me nor stopped speaking even for a second. Had he heard a plea for help in her greeting?
Some members of the group also were celebrities. The press occasionally printed their photos and they even appeared on the short late night TV arts program. There was a belligerent artist who, in an angry, prophetic tone, seized every opportunity to vilify the nation, its climate and its people. What he cursed above all was the country's distance from central Europe, which evidently was the perpetual object of his desire. There was a well-known singer whose love affairs shocked the newspapers' more prudish readers. Sporting a colorful shirt that reached to his knees, he sat there endlessly caressing a young woman seated on his lap. I also recognized a young movie actor whose star lately had risen and who treated the shy waitresses like personal slaves. He wore a flashy exercise outfit and was trying to sound profound but kept tripping over his tongue because he was dead drunk.
Some of them, encouraged by Ron, obviously were pursuing Michal. Although Michal's own expression didn't foreclose the possibility, she was careful to keep her distance from them. Was she in distress there at the table? She leaned against the painted wall, rebuffing all their advances while drinking tea with lemon. She smiled at me when I came in. I wanted to join the circle of admirers around Ron but she waved me off. When the crowd, led by Ron, began harassing an elderly couple seated in the corner of the restaurant beneath the rear window, Michal squirmed. I saw there was nothing for me there. I said good-bye to her from afar and left. I hadn't gone in there to rescue the old patrons or to fight the rowdiness and insults of their drunken tormentors.
Ron, however, hadn't forgotten. He sought me out, trying to meet and befriend me. I suddenly started receiving invitations to events he'd organized. Someone kept sending me his newspaper articles and reports. Overnight, he'd become a fashionable "mule." I also received copies of interviews in which he bragged like an adolescent boy of how he intended to take the world by storm. He himself sent me several short notes, tearing into a veteran literary critic who had compared our work. "What do you think of that blathering ivory tower idiot?" he asked me in one of his notes. In others, he complained that the learned critics not only were thickheaded and conceited but obviously had united to deny him literary success. Well, I had to smile at him. I even brought up his name here and there, as circumstances warranted, and not always derogatorily. His charm sometimes worked even on me. Still, I never replied to his request that I review his books. Nor did I agree to praise them in any publisher advertising. Actually, I secretly rejoiced whenever a critic roasted his atrocious books with fire and brimstone.
Then I happened to meet Adi, the filthy rich yachtsman from Herzliya who clung to Ron like a barnacle. I ran into them at the kibbutz cemetery. I don't know what they were doing there or why they'd come. Perhaps Ron, in a gesture to Michal, had come with her to visit the graves of her friends. It was an odd encounter, extremely affected, I would say. Ron was beating the headstones with a fresh eucalyptus branch. With each stroke, he took a long draw on his cigar.
His jeans were flawless and his beat-up army jacket seemed made for him. Looking like he'd stepped right out of an American magazine, he was the very image of the super Yank who won't sell his soul to Hollywood fiction merchants. Adi, as dolled up as a girl, walked beside him. I remembered what Michal had said about him. "Don't think he's all swagger. Inside, he's really a softy." His acquaintances knew he had a tender soul. I wanted to escape back into the deep shadows of the grove but Ron saw me, called out and hurried over. What a hug he gave me, what a warm handshake he pressed on me, what a hearty but foul cloud of smoke he blew in my face, all as if we were lifelong pals, the best of friends.
"Your weather's as awful as always," he said. "The humidity could kill an elephant." I didn't know what he wanted of me or why he suddenly was ranting about the weather. "I'd like you to meet Adi. He's my best friend. In fact, he's the best friend I'll ever have."
I felt compelled to follow them. I was powerless to leave. That damned charm of his was working on me. Adi, his patron, led the way with Michal walking beside me at the rear, saying nothing. Afraid to look up and meet her eyes, I fretfully kicked the traces of dry eucalyptus leaves. What had she been doing with them all these years? I wondered. It was maddening. Days and weeks went by, the years crept up endlessly. Was she to be dragged all her life from party to party and one amusement to another, from the Mediterranean Sea, "which Adi's yacht just loves," to the Indian Ocean? The utter waste of life was enough to make you burst. What had happened to her? Was she going to pass the time still left her at the trendiest pleasure domes? "Ron has no great love for that life," she told me once. "His editors are always after him to send him somewhere. Fortunately, Adi has the yacht and we like sailing from place to place. We save a bundle and there's always time to lie on the deck and pine away. But he's already getting tired of the vagabond's life."
At our guest quarters, they asked to come in. I felt unable to say no and had my wife serve coffee with some of her scrumptious cookies. As he went by, Ron struck the furniture the way he'd hit the gravestones. "Look at them, Adi," he said. "Look at these penniless kibbutzniks. But how proud they are, how uppity and snooty." The women went off deep in conversation, needing no time at all to become close. Michal, nearly bereft of jewelry, was simply but exquisitely dressed. Examining the pictures on the walls, she noticed a photo of us taken many years earlier at the kibbutz sheep shearing festival. It had been May, the girls wore long white dresses while the boys went about with shepherd staffs on their shoulders. She was thrilled, I could see that as she craned at the photo. In the picture, we stood with all the shepherds among heaps of shorn fleece. My hand lay on her shoulder, her left arm grazed my waist. I remembered how soft her loins had felt against me until I'd begun sneezing spasmodically from the acrid odor of tar.
One time, she'd brazenly visited me with her sturdy young boyfriend, a handsome but bashful lad. "Come on, show us around the kibbutz," she'd asked, and who was I to refuse her? After I gave them a quick tour of the essential sights, we took the beaten limestone path to the abandoned fish ponds and Nahal Alexander. When she held my hand with the passion of a first-time lover, I was ready to swoon for her. I hovered over them like a pestering old fogy. I knew I was in their way but couldn't help myself. After all, she'd asked me to be their guide and I had immediately agreed. All I hoped was that she would bestow on me just a small portion of what she was giving him. For a moment, I forgot everything. I didn't care that she was playing with this boyfriend as she had with others, or whether Ron knew about it. No, she could break his heart, too. Let him suffer as she had tormented others over the years. How had this damned, happy fellow been lucky enough to steal her for himself, leaving no scrap for others? I prayed that he wouldn't seek cruel revenge on her for that. I always suspected that he was used to this.
I have no idea whether she felt anything of what I was feeling or guessed what that surprise visit was doing to me. But she was happy then, supremely happy. Like a child, she exclaimed at the impressive view of the Samarian mountains close by. By the banks of Nahal Alexander, she fell into the arms of her young, taciturn beau when the waterfowl suddenly flapped their wings and martens darted through the thicket. "Remember?" she kept asking. "Do you remember? Here's where we used to put the sacks of sorghum, the fish food. And one time the flock found the bags, they were so crazy with hunger. Remember how they trampled the bags and scattered all the grain? And how they swelled up from all that gorging?" Unable to look at her, I nonchalantly answered, "Yes, of course I remember. I remember the whole thing, including the pretty shepherd girl who used to sunbathe nude with the animals." Nestling in the shy boyfriend's arms, she laughed knowingly and put out her hand to caress my elbow. At that moment, she seemed pale and unsteady, as though she'd been drinking. Nailed to the door of the cabin next to the netting. I heard her voice imploring me to let her be and turn the light back on in the hallway.
She came one day to tell me that her marriage was going through a crisis. Eventually, however, Ron gave in and came back to her. No small part of this reconciliation was due to the estimable Adi, Ron's dear friend. He may be a dandy and a crass materialist but she worships him because he's such a sweet fellow. She isn't the only one to have a secret life, so she learned.
Everyone does, even the most upstanding of us. "And what about your secret life?" she asked me gravely. "Are you ever going to tell me about it?" She'd come during the Sukkot holiday to invite me on a trip to the scenic shores of Cyprus and Turkey on Adi's new yacht, which was nearly ready. "Ron won't bother us," she said. He owed his publisher a blockbuster book on some intricate, secret affair whose implications affected the country's richest and most powerful families.
The publisher, who had given Ron a sizable advance, insisted that he finish the book at once. Everything was ready for the voyage, she told me. The yacht shone and sparkled. Adi had bought a new model, a splendid catamaran, which she'd inspected that morning. It had everything: a kitchenette, a small salon, a tanning deck and even a small section on which to dance nude at night. Reaching for my elbow, she looked into my eyes and said, "Come with us. I'm asking you."
The holiday was drawing near and I had to give her an answer. Autumn suddenly fell on Nahal Alexander. Mountains of translucent glass again rose to the sky. Great lysthrum flowers turned the banks violet while inula plants on the splitting embankments of the fish ponds bloomed in immense yellow patches. Michal said she had come just to invite me. No telephone or fax or mail for her. She had to deliver her message personally, in our little garden, after stopping by the cemetery. Adi's catamaran had exactly four berths. Above each jib of the yacht there was a sleeping nook with two mattresses. It was a dream come true, she said, putting her arm in mine. Nights were cool now, the sea was calm and generous Adi would see to everything. Ron had been wrapped up for weeks in the plot of his new thriller. She knew how he was consumed by the book, too immersed in it to interfere. When he started writing, she knew, he devoted himself to it and forgot all else around him.
How many times had she come into my life? And how many times had she left? What hopes had she roused in me over the years? How swiftly had she disappointed me? I stood before her like a chastised boy. "I can't Michal, I just can't. There's my wife, my family, work and the kibbutz." I could have gone on, ticking off an endless list of reasons. But I yearned to go. Her hand tightened on my elbow. "We need you aboard. I need you. We have four berths. Four mattresses in two compartments. Ron will work, Adi will run things, and you and I can continue what we didn't finish in the dark back then, the night of the summer party when we returned to my room."
I promised I'd consider her offer and get back to her soon. She got up and I walked her back to her gleaming Jeep, which was in its usual parking spot near the laundry. The couple visiting from England, or another pair, waved hello on recognizing me as they jogged past us. "Where's your bike?" they inquired sociably. I made a disparaging gesture with my hand, as though these things, the bike, their running, the shiny parked Jeep - over which Michal soon would lean in her usual way to straighten her hair with the quick, short motions that heated my aging heart -had no importance just now. Her lingering invitation gnawed at me. There were moments when I was sure I would say yes; I'd immediately start getting ready, packing my papers and calling Adi to come and take care of the rest. And then there were moments when I was furious with myself. So many years had passed since we'd chased after wayward sheep and still she governed me as though the events had happened yesterday. My next feeling was pity for me, and for her, and for my wife, and even for her insufferable Ron. I'd forgotten what it meant to bear such torture. I'd forgotten how exhausting this internal conflict could be for me. I'd forgotten how I would have given the world, everything I wanted and had fought for, just to relive those excruciating moments. Crossing the lawn damp with dew, the sweet smell of her body, my fatuous confidence that I would win her, all of her, before long.
One day, while going up the hill to the central kibbutz offices, I saw a crowd gathering. I knew the difference between a celebration and the observance of a tragedy.
"What happened?" I asked. "Who's been hurt?"
"Haven't you heard?" someone whispered. "Adi's yacht sank last night. We're still waiting for details. All we know is that Adi, who owned the ship and had several friends on the kibbutz, didn't survive."
"And Michal?" I suddenly screamed with a great roar of pain that invaded my throat. "And Michal? What about her?"
My outburst drew looks. "Take it easy. Why are you shouting? Don't you know she was the first found drowned?"
"And that bastard," I screamed unwittingly. "That bastard, Ron, what about him?"
"Oh, he's been rescued," they told me. "A Turkish Coast Guard cutter brought him into port. The funerals will be held soon."
Adi's new yacht, that wonder craft skimming across the Mediterranean, flipped over like a walnut shell when a huge wave unexpectedly crashed into it. The ultramodern catamaran, with its two sleeping compartments and four mattresses, was crushed like a porcelain bowl hurled against the wall. The voyage to enticing shores, the sweet, promised holiday trip, a glorious autumn on the smooth sea and my obstinate refusal - they had buried her. And Ron, who was supposed to devote himself to his writing, leaving us alone and even shutting his eyes if she slipped into my berth during the humid night, he alone had survived. I ran down to the limestone path and then loped to the new bridge across Nahal Alexander. At every turn, I thought I saw her and heard her voice.
Here was where she had taken off her blouse to sunbathe, here she'd helped a straining ewe deliver her lamb. Here the sheep had run wild, here they had started to stampede toward the mountains.
The translucent glass wall above me suddenly rose to the cloudless sky. I wanted to punch it, slam it with the elbow she'd held just weeks before. I wanted to smash the surrounding glass shelter to smithereens. Right here at the footbridge, I'd picked her up once in the winter, soaked to the bone. "Come on, I'll dry you off," I'd said, aching to clamp my arms around her. But she had refused. "No, it's nothing," she'd said. "Let's go back and I'll change my clothes." Everything froze inside and around me in that vast glass vessel. The autumn light transformed it into a shattered glass object. The English couple finished their circuit around the river bank and prepared to run back. Searching for my old bike, they watched me, concerned. But I, waving them off with a crude gesture, refused to speak with them. Wouldn't the world let me stay a minute with her alone? Wouldn't it, that agonizing autumn on Nahal Alexander's fractured bank?
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