Our Place (go to home)
  NOVEL EXCERPT by Atar Hadari
   Our Place
 Ears
 Possession
   
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Possession

Here everyone’s the same, and — certain families apart — if you want your house to look a certain way, you ask at the committee meeting for houses, and they will tell you what you can have. Of course, if you’re not Yoav Frankel’s grandson, or Feivel’s or Shrulik’s, if you’re not related to one of the big families, it’s probably a waste of time going. Just wait and you’ll find out what by the Grace of God you’re getting. And if you haven’t a tie to those names — not married, not one of them, nothing — you do what you can sometimes but mostly you sit still.

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Sarah was not made to be free. She never liked it here, from the first week. I told her the tents were temporary, she wanted to know why they leaked. When it rained. I said, “Thank God it’s raining.”

She said, “If it’s donations paid for these tents and we are volunteers to build the land, why do these tents have leaks? Who sold torn tents in exchange for donations?” She ran her hand over the tent flap like it was something she wouldn’t buy used in a camping goods store. She always had a nimble hand with a needle, considering she never sewed a thing in her life before she came. All store bought. That’s what she’s like. Berlin she came from. Expects her money’s worth. She may have been to Buchenwald but she never learned life is not what you signed for in the catalogue. She always thought you could require things of the management. I said, “At least there’s a tent.”

She said, “They said we’d get houses.”

“But we have a tent,” I said.

“It leaks.”

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The children’s house was the first house, naturally. With a roof, and walls, to keep out rain. And Arabs, of course, that’s why we had the house — in the first place — a place you could defend. We only thought we needed it after the second child, third, fourth — suddenly we had a little choir of cats howling and the meeting suggested we get a house. A children’s house.

We had the first child, as you know, my Gadi, born the year Sarah and I got spliced. Right after Anschel left, for Tel Aviv and onward, we stopped sharing a tent, because he’d gone, and Sarah and I finally got married. She said she wanted a house. Always wanted a house to go to for her wedding night. Then the night of the big meeting to discuss Anschel, I didn’t see her there, or find her in her tent. Couldn’t find him. Didn’t know if they were by the spring, batting off rats, finding their feet in the darkness, or just watching the stars on the hills. The next day Anschel left and she agreed to share a tent with me. We got married. And Gadi was conceived right by that spring. She told me it was right by that spring, when he arrived barely eight months later. Though he was not a little thing. But she protected him. Protected him like she knew what people could do and she was not prepared to lose him.

That’s how the first child was left in a tent, at night, with its Mummy and Daddy. Me. And Sarah had no problems at first, was the heroine, first child on the land and all of that. I got my back slapped too, though I wasn’t so happy about it. Then a second child, a third, a fourth — and they started to talk about a house. Where the children could be safe. Sarah wouldn’t hear of it.

It’s not that she didn’t want a house. Like I told you, she wanted her first night to be in one, not by the spring, that’s what she dreamed of. And I’m sure your wife dreams of something in Jerusalem, to have her baby in. The bottom drawer full of linen, everything you think of when you’re living with Daddy.

“It wasn’t so bad by the spring,” I said, “You said you loved the spot. Flowery.”

“I loved that you could sit there with someone and not hear what was said in the meeting. About houses, or where anyone should live.”

“Who did you sit with there but me?”

“I’ll sit there with Gadi, if I have to, but he will sleep only with me.”

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That was the size of it. The four children, of course, needed guarding. And the other parents of course, wanted privacy. That’s what it was about. You can’t have two bedrooms in a bit of leaky canvas sheeting. Who’s going to have any more children if the babies are crying and wanting Mummy? Sarah never cared so much about that. If I wanted to go to the spring she’d go, with Gadi asleep in his blankets, and put him in the rushes. She lay down without a word, like she knew her way in the dark, but she never asked to go. She wouldn’t hear of Gadi sleeping anywhere out of ear-shot.

“Didn’t Anschel teach you anything?” she said. “Didn’t you hear him?”

“Anschel talked about a lot of things,” I said.

“Didn’t you learn what happens here when people aren’t under your hands?” she said. “Didn’t you learn how people can make you disappear and give up what you wanted in all your dreams?”

“I learned not to listen too hard, from Anschel,” I said.

“I learned to see my way through the trees,” she said, “and I still see to find my own way. Nobody’s guarding my son while I sleep and can’t hear him want something. Nobody.”

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I went to the meeting. They voted for a children’s house. Real wood. Enough room for the children and a guard. I didn’t voice any specific objection. I asked if it was clear who would safeguard all of the little mites.

“You can take turns,” the Secretary said, “I’m sure Sarah would love to spend the night, watching the house.”

“What then?” I asked, “She’ll sit one night. How will you promise her next night that her Gadi will be safe?”

One of the other girls spoke up. Magda. A little purple face. She never took the color here. Always looked like she just walked out of a frozen camp bunk bed.

“Gadi will be guarded like the rest of ours. We’ll have a guard. A nurse. Whatever it takes.”

“I didn’t know you were a nurse…”

“I didn’t know you needed someone else to sew your cuts and scrapes.”

“We will provide for the children,” the Secretary said, “The kibbutz will provide. Now can we vote?”

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One never can persuade a majority of anything but what it wants. One is always listening to what other people think. One is not capable of making any kibbutz turn, unless one is one of those families, and even then, even then when we were in our tents and Gadi was still on Sarah’s breast, and only four other children, even then I knew nobody was listening. It’s just that those others, with their children, manufactured the votes for future meetings. Sarah was never interested in influencing the meeting. She went out and lay down in the dark, if I asked, otherwise Gadi went where she did. And when I came back to the tent to tell her what was said, she lay still and looked through the hole in the canvassing. Then she covered Gadi up (he had thrown off his blanket), and she said, “They don’t need a guard. I will sit with Gadi every night in the children’s house, every night, if they insist we can’t keep him ourselves.”

“It’s not about keeping him,” I said, “Anyway, what about going to the spring? Or staying in?”

“If we can’t take Gadi we can’t go to the spring,” she said firmly. “I won’t go there with a man again.”

“I’m not a man, I’m — “

“Gadi loves me, I won’t go there without someone who loves me.”

“What about me?”

“You love living here. Some people I’ve known love me, more than living here.”

“Anybody who cares for you when it’s hot and there’s no more iced lemon?”

She looked at me.

“I would leave here like that, if it wasn’t for you and Gadi.”

“Why didn’t you leave with Anschel?”

“He never asked. He thought I’d never marry a furrier from Berlin.”

“Instead you married a laborer?”

“I married who loved me and was staying.”

“Didn’t you love me?”

“Gadi was born here. I won’t let anybody make me lose him. I’ll kill anyone that comes in that house with my bare hands if I have to. And if you want to do what the kibbutz wants, that’s where you’ll go to find your wife.”

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It wasn’t hard. For me at least. Sarah sat, another woman sat. Sometimes it was Magda, sometimes the Secretary himself. Sat in a corner with a kerosene lamp and a newspaper and gun. And Sarah sat in a chair by Gadi’s crib. They each had their crib brought from the tents.

We went to the spring once or twice. I came and I coughed and said Gadi was sick. And we took the little blighter out with us wrapped in his things. We came back and said he was sleeping, better now and could go back in there for the sake of kibbutz unity. The Secretary would just smile at me, I swear he had horns by the light of that kerosene lamp. Magda never looked up from her knitting. She and Sarah never spoke a word, just sitting there. Sitting and staring — Sarah into the dark around Gadi’s crib, Magda looking at Sarah and knitting.

Eventually we got a house. Just a shack. Then the other children came. Never from by the spring. Except that time, like Sarah said. Gadi was a given. But none of the others stayed. Sarah was willing to let them sleep with the children. She only sat up nights by Gadi’s bed. And Gadi still lives here, that’s why you see his children on Sabbaths with their grandma and grandad. He’s always sat next to me, in synagogue, right where Anschel sat. And the other children left when they grew up and I see them, I love them, but the kibbutz is not their blood.

I wonder sometimes, sitting by the spring, late at night, alone now since Sarah has gone — I have to find my way in the dark with a torch, because no one ever taught me what she learned. I wonder what the meaning was of all those people I loved here who left it. Me. Why was it my lot to love this land and the rain drops that fall here but lose every one I cared for who came here. Except Gadi, and his children. I still see them, Sabbath morning. They ask me to come join them, for the big meal. I feel sometimes he’s Sarah’s son, watching, as I sit with the other old children in the big house we finally built for our worship. I think Sarah told him to watch me. She left, when the kibbutz wouldn’t pay for her hand.

You didn’t know? Yes, you’re not wrong to be going to Jerusalem. Don’t think you’re wrong to be going. Don’t think it’s not the right thing. An operation. Something that Buchenwald left with her. She was beaten, you see, and the body will tell. It will tell what it’s seen and heard, eventually. When she turned sixty-seven she needed the procedure or her arm wouldn’t continue working. A procedure which could only be done out of the country, or in Afula. They said somebody knew how to do it in Afula, but even there is would cost money. The committee said, “Possibly.”

We got a second opinion. The second opinion said a procedure would work, but required going to Switzerland. The kibbutz preferred the first opinion.

So we went to the hospital near Bet Shean — Afula — and had her wishbones amputated. But it never worked, she sat and sat, and recuperated, but the arm never regained its strength. Not enough money. In Switzerland maybe she’d have kept her hands working.

Gadi visited, brought flowers, books. He even adjusted the hand press so she could do her work — binding books to keep them in use — with the other hand. But she can’t use that hand. Says it’s too cold. And she sat and sat in the house and after seven months without work she couldn’t get out of bed. It wasn’t so long after that.

I went to the committee. I asked. Gadi asked. Sarah never went. She refused to discuss it, Buchenwald, in public. Only once with Gadi, he took her on a trip to see the camp, some anniversary, to see where, to hear how. They took the train across Poland. For old times sake.

The plane from Tel Aviv to Warsaw, then the train to Buchenwald.

She said, “The same railway lines, same street signs. Judenstrasse, Jew Court.” There was no one there left to play tennis with, like I do after Sabbath on kibbutz.

They got off the train. Nice town, now, Buchenwald. Quite apart from the tourist industry. I think they have a sports coat factory. Then they went in the gates. She took him, my Gadi, first child born in this land, behind this fence, before we even had a fence, took him to see why her arm hurt. And there was nothing. Empty barracks. Not mice even. Rusty wire. And the stench, the stench of something you cannot get out of your skin with sandpaper. She stood on the concentration camp bunk house floor and clopped her foot softly on the rotten boards. “We won,” she said to him, and she looked around as if waking from a dream and rubbed her arm and said, “Let’s go now.”

They flew from Warsaw. Hardly gone forty eight hours. You would have thought she had stepped off kibbutz for a dental appointment. But the kibbutz wouldn’t pay for her to go for the operation.

Magda had her teeth done in Tel Aviv. The old Secretary, Shrulik, went to Switzerland for his steel hip. But he has family. Gadi and I said she was weak. She needed the operation abroad to work again. The kibbutz Secretary, as it happens also chair of this committee, as it happens also Shrulik’s grandson, said, “It’s time she rests. You should tell her the kibbutz expects her to enjoy what she’s built. She doesn’t owe us anything.”

“What do you owe?” I said.

Gadi patted my trouser leg and whispered to me not to make a scene. Sometimes I think there’s some of me in him, sometimes I think Sarah just told him to play the game. I didn’t know what else to say, in any case. What I have said, when I was pressed to say something, I said when others asked me to, for the kibbutz, for somebody else. What could I say now — to the kibbutz? What could I say when there was no one left to ask? That the kibbutz lied to me? That they said there would be houses and there were tents, that only if you’re family are you equal, that no one knows the name of anyone who walks outside the fence, only who’s with you in the meeting hall and votes, whoever does what the kibbutz wants, that’s who you see, the rest just melt away — into the palms and the night and the crickets screaming their lungs out and only doing what — sawing the silence? How would I say all that? And who would listen?

I took her once, down to the spring, the last time. It was late in the day, she could no longer see her way through the darkness. We picked our way, old, slow, with walking sticks, to the spot where Gadi would lie in the roots of a tree, the spot where earlier, she told me he was conceived, and I believed it.

We looked at it. The old grey banks now overflowing with ivy. The icy depths now greened over with pink and yellow lilies. The young ones still come, and lie there with their blankets. We never needed blankets.

“Gadi will die here,” she said, “I suppose you’ve won.”

“What have I won?” I said.

“Possession,” she said. “Isn’t that what they told us in England, before the English even left this country? Possession is nine tenths of the law.”

“I don’t possess anything,” I said, “The kibbutz owns our housing.”

“You possess this,” she said and she raised her foot over the ivy. “Your son will be buried here.”

“My son?” I said.

“Possession is everything,” she said. “I haven’t had anything I wanted I could keep since Berlin,” she said, “except Gadi. And you are keeping him.”

She died that week.

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It’s a funny thing the spring at night. You hear things. Feel things. Sometimes you see things. A boy and girl. I could have sworn it was Sarah at nineteen. Baggy clothes, everything. Of course fashion is always repeating. But the boy looked so like him. Like Anschel. My Gadi. Perhaps it was my grandson. Or maybe just an old man’s tricks in the darkness. Or maybe the dark tells me what I never did see. And I listen, now, perhaps it’s too late, but I listen. Anschel, Sarah, Gadi. Only Gadi still speaking, but I listen mostly to the darkness and it tells me, “You have not won. There is no end to this beating, and when the water dries your son’s grave will blow away.” I get up. I brush the mud off my trousers. And I try the slope once again, without Sarah in the darkness.

 
  © Atar Hadari, 2013  
 

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