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Authors: A. B. Yehoshua

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BOOK: Mr. Mani
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—Yes, bleeding...

—The hell it was! It was not my imagination ... absolutely not ... and as soon as he saw it was only me he smiled like a naughty boy with this sheepish sort of smile, although maybe it was also a little mocking—I don't think it was, but it wouldn't have mattered if there was a bit of mockery in it—and he said, “Honestly, young lady, I was beginning to worry what was taking you so long...” And, Mother, I was so thrilled by that new tone of his, which was so much freer and easier, and especially by that darling “young lady,” that I walked down that hallway in a trance and grabbed his hand and said quietly but firmly, “Please, don't do it again.” Well, Mother, this shocked look came over him. He was completely taken by surprise. He ran his hand over his face and throat and was alarmed by all the blood on it—and all at once, Mother, I stopped being angry with him, the truth had finally dawned on me, which was that he couldn't control this impulse he had to do away with himself every evening, because he had no reason for doing it, Mother, he only thought that he did, and even that thought wasn't his own but came from someone or somewhere else...

—Maybe that grandmother had left something behind in her room that was haunting him without his knowing it...

—No, listen, Mother, please. Don't just laugh off everything I say. Listen to me...

—Yes, from someone or somewhere else ... shhh ... shhh ... don't move...

—No, wait ... don't move...

—No, don't open the door ... not now...

—You can always say we were sleeping ... you've a right to...

—You don't have to lie ... but you can't just open that door automatically for this whole kibbutz as if it were the door of a bus...

—Shhh ... shhh...

—What's not nice about it?

—There, thank God, they're gone ... Who could it have been?

—Then I'm turning out the light ... Are you listening?

—Yes, a real mystery, that's what I felt. Except that instead of getting all uptight, which is what you would have done, I did just the opposite and began to feel this great calm...

—Impossible. His mourner's beard, Mother, was just an excuse...

—To go on cutting himself...

—I do know ... I do know...

—I saw it ... and I know...

—You don't believe me, Mother, because you don't want to believe. You have this great mass of collective wisdom behind you, and maybe here in the desert you need it to bolster you, but you're so pitifully spooked by the least hint of mystery, which is why you have to root it out so ruthlessly with the iron logic of broad daylight ... But it doesn't spook
me,
Mother, any more than Mr. Mani and all his real or imaginary suicides. I found some towel to staunch the blood with, and we sat in the kitchen while waiting for it to stop, and I lit some more little candles and we drank some milk, because we couldn't boil water on account of the power being off, and we had a real face-to-face talk at last, and suddenly I realized, Mother, that over the past three days we had made a secret pact, it wasn't anything written or clear, but it was enough to make me tell him what had happened to me in the cemetery, and how I got to Augusta Victoria, and he sat there hanging on each word. I could see that the idea of someone's seed inside me didn't bother him in the least, not even if it was his own son's, which was why he didn't rush to turn everything into a hallucination like you do, because psychology is just a parable for him and not reality itself. He simply sat there daubing the blood on his throat and looking at it now and then on the towel, and we began to be friends. He told me all about Augusta Victoria, and the German Kaiser's visit to Jerusalem, and how and why the place was built—and when I told him about my ride in the ambulance and all those neighborhoods I never knew about, he said how sorry he was that I was going back to Tel Aviv without seeing the real Jerusalem, by which he meant the Jerusalem of his ancestors, and he mentioned how he goes every Friday to the marketplace in the Old City, because the courts aren't in session then ... and I was so touched, Mother, by his faith in my ability to extricate myself from Jerusalem in the end and get back to the coast or the desert without compulsively walking in on him every night that I said to him on the spot, “As a matter of fact, I'd love to see the Old City with you tomorrow morning, because not only don't the courts sit on Fridays, the university has no classes either...”

—Nothing special. We waited for the lights to come back on, but they didn't until eleven, and meanwhile there was no television and no radio and no hot water to drink or wash with. We just sat and shivered in the dark, wrapped in blankets like in some tent city, reading the newspapers by candlelight. From time to time I tried getting him to talk about his childhood in Crete, and he showed me some photographs of his family, and of Efi as a little boy, and in the end he put me to sleep in that grandmother's bed, the same one I slept in the first night...

—No, the room was perfectly normal. Maybe now that he was into razor blades, he didn't need scaffolds anymore...

—I'm not laughing, Mother ... I didn't laugh once in the course of those three days, and I'm perfectly serious now too. It's all I can do to keep myself from running to the dining hall this minute and phoning to see if he's dead or alive ... shhh ... shhh ... I swear, there's someone outside the window ... it's unbelievable ... maybe it's me they're looking for, not you...

—A couple of people saw me get off the bus.

—Oh. Yes, of course. Anyway, it must have been toward midnight, I had been tossing and turning, because I couldn't fall asleep after spending most of the day in bed. I kept thinking of that wonderful view of the desert with the blue scoop of the Dead Sea and that flock of black goats trooping into my window. In the middle of the night the phone rang, and this time Mr. Mani was good enough to answer it, and I realized at once, just from hearing his end of it, that it was my poor darling Efi, who'd had a visit from the mobile telephone unit at that checkpoint he's stuck in outside Beirut. I listened to his father tell him about the unveiling, but he didn't say a word about me, not one single word about my having telephoned or come to Jerusalem or stayed over or gone to the cemetery. It was as if he were afraid to admit that I was there on the other side of the wall, afraid of being suspected of trying to be his own son—and I was devastated, Mother, not by him but by myself, by what this terrible need for a father has done to me...

—Yes ... yes...

—It's true ... I admit it...

—Yes, yes...

—Maybe you're right, maybe it was just some fantasy of mine ... there, are you happy? Does that make you feel better?

—For me? For
me?
Do you really have doubts about my sanity?

—Yes, you do ... why don't you admit it.

—No, I'm not crying. I'm really not...

—It's nothing...

—Dearest Mother ... Mother...

—The next morning? Nothing. I couldn't go back on my promise to let him take me to the marketplace, and it was a bore. He put on these old clothes, not even a tie, just a sweater and an old jacket, which made him lose all his presence and his charm, and we went with these baskets to buy all sorts of things for a few shekels less in the alleys of the Old City. After that he took me to the Wailing Wall, as if I hadn't already been there, and then he wanted to visit some Arabs he knew in Silwan. The more he talked about them, the less I knew what he was saying about them, whether they hated us or loved us or wanted to get rid of us or were attached to us or were peaceful or were up to no good. I couldn't tell what he needed them for, and by then Jerusalem was getting me down. You could already smell that awful Sabbath of theirs coming on, and I was afraid that the bus station might shut down early and leave me stranded there again, so I tried tactfully telling him not to get too carried away with all those back alleys of his. “Don't forget my bus,” I said, “I have to get home,” and he finally got the hint and brought me to the station and put me in line for the bus to Tel Aviv, and I jumped the railing at the last second and caught the bus to Beersheba, because I wanted to be with you, my one and only mother, and to say,
Hey, Ma, it's me, listen to this,
even though I knew you'd say,
There goes Hagar, looking for a father again,
and you're right, you're always right, Mother, what can I say, I know you are, but I also know there's something deeper than your psychology, maybe even something astounding, why is it that you never remarried all these years, what made you stay faithful to that man over there whose photograph glows in the dark, more peaceful than the bookcase that it's standing on, never moving, never changing, our impossible, our dead hero, who exists more than any of us in a single photograph, which follows us everywhere like some ultimate test, staring out with me into the darkness like a ghost, and that's not my imagination, maybe he's inside me right now, straddling, how do I know, the thin line between life and death...

Biographical

Supplements

 

HAGAR SHILOH
Hagar returned to Tel Aviv the next morning but could not concentrate on studying for her English exam because that Saturday evening she got her period, which was accompanied by strong cramps and heavy bleeding. She preferred to think of it as an “early miscarriage” rather than as a “late period,” and her mood improved when Efrayim Mani returned from the army and their relationship resumed. Since Efrayim, who was fresh from the harsh experience of serving in Lebanon and bitter over a new stint of reserve duty already scheduled for him, did not seem eager to hear about Hagar's visit to Jerusalem, she told him only briefly about it. Not wanting to scare him off, she did not mention her “pregnancy” either. A few weeks later, however, she became pregnant for real, although less enthusiastically than the first time and more as if in fulfillment of an obligation to Efi's father.

When he found out that Hagar was pregnant, Efrayim was both alarmed and furious. At first he broke off with her completely. Eventually, however, on the advice of his father, who thought that Hagar was a bit strange, he agreed to acknowledge paternity.

The child, a healthy baby boy, was born in the autumn of 1983 and, despite Hagar's mother's objections, named Roni after her father. Although by then Hagar had successfully finished her preparatory course at the university, she did not begin her studies in the film department because her grandmother Naomi, young in spirit though she was, could not cope with a baby in the house; Hagar was a heavy sleeper, and when the child cried at night Naomi had to take care of him, which soon brought her to the verge of collapse. And so Hagar was forced to move back to the kibbutz, especially since the rehabilitation department of the defense ministry was not liberal to the point of supporting a child born out of wedlock. The best Hagar could do, after knocking on many doors, was to obtain an increase in her monthly stipend.

Efrayim Mani not unjustly felt deceived and refused to marry Hagar. He was willing to take formal (but not, as he put it, “emotional”) responsibility for the infant, and he agreed to allot a third of his salary to its support. Gavriel Mani, on the other hand, or
Mr. Mani,
as Hagar continued to think of him, became attached to his fatherless grandson and sometimes traveled to the Negev to see and play with him. These visits, which became more frequent when Efrayim went abroad to study in London, deepened the tie that had already developed between the child's grandfather and grandmother.

Once her son was six, Hagar, who had felt isolated and neglected during her first years on the kibbutz, found it possible to resume her studies. In 1988 she registered for a joint major in the Jewish history and education departments of the University of Beersheba, where she was accepted without a high school diploma on the strength of her preparatory year in Tel Aviv in 1982. Today, at the age of twenty-eight, she is still not married. Despite pressure from her mother and her friends, she refuses to go for therapy or even for psychological counseling.

 

YA'EL SHILOH
Although she sought to conceal her pleasure over the telephone, Ya'el was greatly relieved when, twenty-four hours after their conversation, she learned that Hagar was not pregnant. But Hagar, who went on seeing Efrayim Mani, was less candid with her mother when she really did become pregnant several weeks later, and by the time she broke the news to Ya'el it was too late to take medical measures.

Ya'el felt deeply hostile toward Hagar's pregnancy, which seemed to her completely uncalled for and a source of future aggravation. She also felt sure that Hagar's becoming pregnant was a provocative act aimed at herself. Moreover, although her progressive views compelled her to admit that it was his right, Efrayim Mani's refusal to marry Hagar seemed a slap in the face to her. In the earlier stages of Hagar's pregnancy she still hoped for a spontaneous abortion, but this did not materialize. When the child was born in October 1983, Ya'el was secretly pleased that Hagar did not return to the kibbutz with it and sought to continue her studies in Tel Aviv. Within a few weeks, however, once it became clear that Hagar's seventy-five-year-old grandmother could not manage with an infant in her apartment, Hagar was forced to come back to Mash'abei Sadeh. The moment Ya'el saw her and her baby get out of the truck that had brought them from Tel Aviv after delivering avocados there, she underwent a change of heart. It was as if all at once she understood that there might be a deeper reason for the child's existence, and from then on she did all she could to care for it and help Hagar.

Although the young father, Efrayim Mani, traveled to the Negev now and then to see his son, he was so aloof toward him and Hagar that his infrequent visits were a burden. Once, in the early spring of 1984, when Efrayim was again doing reserve duty in Lebanon, his place was taken by his father, Justice of the Peace Gavriel Mani, who wished to have a look at the grandson he had not seen since the circumcision.

BOOK: Mr. Mani
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