Authors: Meir Shalev
The Loves of Judith
A Pigeon and a Boy
Alone in the Desert
But a Few Days
The Blue Mountain
My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner
Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts
Elements of Conjuration
Mainly About Love
The Bible for Now
Roni and Nomi and the Bear Yaacov
The Tractor in the Sandbox
How the Neanderthal Discovered the Kebab
A Louse Named Thelma
My Father Always Embarrasses Me
A Lion in the Night
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Translation copyright Â© 2016 by Meir Shalev
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Schocken Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in Israel as
by Am Oved Publishers Ltd., Tel Aviv, in 2013. Copyright Â© 2013 by Am Oved Publishers Ltd., Tel Aviv.
Schocken Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Shalev, Meir, author. Schoffman, Stuart, translator.
Title: Two she-bears : a novel / Meir Shalev ; translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman.
Other titles: Shetayim dubim. English.
Description: New York : Schocken Books, 2016.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016001663. ISBN
(hardcover : alk. paper). ISBN
Classification: LCC PJ5054.S384 S5413 2016. DDC 892.43/6âdc23. LC record available at
Cover images: (top)
Jewish Refugee, Vienna
by David Jagger (detail), Nottingham City Museums and Galleries/Bridgeman Images; (middle) Tree Â© CSA/iStock; (bottom)
A Jewish Bride
by Isidor Kaufmann (detail), private collection, photo Â© Christie's Images/Bridgeman Images; (background) Kevin Clogstoun/Getty Images
Cover design by Janet Hansen
FOR AVRAHAM YAVIN
With love and thanks
The cell phone rang. The tall, beefy guy peered at the screen and said to the woman across the table: “Gotta take this. Be right back.”
He went outside, trying to suck in his potbelly. He wasn't accustomed to it, and it kept surprising him: images in the mirror, pressure on his belt, the reaction of his partner as he moved atop her body.
The familiar voice replied, “I counted nine rings. You made me wait.”
“Sorry. I was in a restaurant and came outside.”
“We have a problem.”
“I hear you.”
“I will explain it to you intelligently and carefully, and you will attempt to respond the same way.”
“You remember the nature walk we took?”
“What did I just say? Intelligently and carefully. No times, no dates, no hours.”
“It was a nice walk.”
“You didn't hear what I said? It was a nice walk.”
“I heard you.”
“You didn't respond.”
“You wanted intelligent and careful. Whaddya want?”
“What kind of language is that? Say: âWhat sort of response?'â”
“ââOkay' is not enough. Say what I said.”
The young man contracted his belly and released it at once. “What sort of response?”
“You could have said whether you agree or disagree with what I said.”
“About our nature walk.”
“I agree. It was a very nice nature walk.”
“You should have answered immediately. Twice you made me wait. First the ringing and now the response.”
“Don't you ever make me wait.”
“Do you remember where we relaxed at the end of the walk?”
“Sure do. In the wadi under the big carob tree.”
“What did I say? Intelligently and carefully. No times, no places, no names.”
“I didn't say names.”
“You said âcarob,' no?”
The young man gently made a fist with his right hand and studied it. It was wrapped in a white bandage, and only his fingertips protruded. His eyes, small and close together, shut for a moment and opened, as from pain that recurs when its origin is recalled.
I visualize him in my mind. He stands outside the restaurant, considers his boots, lifts his left leg a little, rubs the shiny square boot tip on the right leg of his pants.
And I hear his interlocutor continue: “If you had only said âcarob'âthat's one thing. Only âbig'ânot so terrible. But âthe big carob,' noun and adjective and the definite articleâthis is serving it up on a plate. Bon appÃ©tit, please eat. Not just any tree: a carob. Not just any carob, a big carob. And just not any big carob: the big carob in the wadi. This is a wording that limits the possibilities. This is why language was invented, so things will be clear. But for us, clear is very bad. Do you understand?”
“Yes. I'm sorry.”
“Enough apologizing. Just pay attention.”
“Good. Now the point. The point is we forgot something there.”
“The gas gizmo you made us tea on?”
“The sugar spoon?”
“Would we be having a conversation like this about a spoon? Think back and remember. For once use your brain properly. Even a small brain can achieve results if operated correctly. And when you do remember what it is, don't say it. Just say: âI know what you are talking about.'â”
“Again you're making me wait.”
“I remember. I know what you are talking about.”
“So go there, look for it, find it, and bring it to me.”
“If someone else finds it before us, it will be very bad.”
“I'm outta here in half a minute. Go looking with the flashlight.”
“A lost cause. That's what you are. A lost cause. âI will go and look.' Say it: âI will go and look.' I want for once to hear you speak properly.”
“I will go and look.”
“And don't make me mad anymore.”
“And don't go there now with a flashlight. It's dark now. Someone could see the light from far away. Go very early tomorrow.”
“First thing in the morning.”
“At dawn. And don't park in the usual place. Find another spot, continue on foot, get there at first light, and start looking.”
“How's your hand?”
“You put on a bandage?”
“Why would I?”
“So you shouldn't get rabies.”
“And let out your belly already. I can feel it without even seeing you. Go on, send your girlfriend home and go to sleep. You have to get up early tomorrow. She doesn't need to know what time you leave.”
How harsh the revenge would be, and how simple it was to prepare. The avenger's wife, standing behind him, saw and understood every detail, which reminded her of preparations for a hike, like the ones they had made together years before. Vigorously shaking out the backpack, which was glad to emerge from storage. Checking the laces on hiking boots that had all but abandoned hope. Roll call of buttons on the work shirt.
She also saw the differences: instead of the delicacies he took along to please her on those hikes of theirs, he now took a modest amount of simple foodâslices of bread, hard-boiled eggs, unpeeled cucumbers, a container of sour cream. The word “ascetic” came quickly to mind.
And she noticed other details: He peeled the eggs here, in the kitchen of their home, lest telltale bits of shell be left in the field, revealing human presence. He paid no heed to the salami, a constant companion on those hikes, which yearned to come along. Its aroma would likely attract dogs, and after the dog its owner would likely appear. He's making the Turkish coffee here at home, she observed, and pouring it into the old thermos. A campfire, a gas cooker, fresh coffee boiling, would be seen and heard and smelled from a distance.
And she remembered: Back then, on those hikes, he'd cook up the coffee on his tiny, meticulous fires. He boiled, stirred, and poured, served her with the gestures of a flirty waiter. They had a little coffeepot, with a long funny handle, which came with them on every hike. But now this tooâWhere is it? she suddenly wondered, twelve years since last seenâdidn't go into the pack.
She knew: Something big and terrible was about to happen. Revenge would be taken, blood would be redeemed, someone would die, maybe more than one. Nevertheless a smile dawned on her face, as if in sympathy with the coffeepot: Sooty and snubbed, he's not taking you along? No big deal. He's doing the same to me. Like David in the Bible leaving two hundred men behind as he unsheathed his sword, boiling with vengeance, to confront Nabal.
She drew a bit closer. Did he sense her? Did he still have that eerie ability to sense what was going on behind his back? Whether he did or not, he did not turn around, did not look at her. She came closer, keenly and pleasantly aware of the two-centimeter difference in their height, and smiled inside: There is no other husband in the moshava who is shorter than his wife, and surely no other who loves her for it.
Once, before the disaster that befell them, when they still walked together in the streetâWhat a beautiful couple, everyone saidâhe would lean his head on her shoulder, in a role reversal that embarrassed people who watched them, but pleased and amused her. “It's very important,” he kept saying back then, “to make your lover laugh.” In their Ten Commandments, which he wrote out and hung on the bedroom wall, the Third, Fourth, and Ninth were identical: “Entertain thy wife.”
Where'd he get that? she wondered when she first saw the words, and again now, in retrospect. Several years ago, on a particularly bad morning, she tore the commandments from the wall, ripped them up, and threw them in the trash. He did not write her new ones, and she did not forget the old onesâthey still hang on the walls of her heart.
His back got so broad, she said to herself now.
On those hikes of theirs, they always walked side by side, but when the road narrowed to a path, she slowed down, so he could go first. She would look at his back, thin and boyish, and he would turn around and say to her, “Why're you walking behind me? You lead.”
“I don't know where.”
“Go with the trail, it'll take you.”
“It's not marked.”
“It is marked, but not by trail signs. It's marked by footprints, trampled grass, stones moved from their normal place, shiny patches on the rocks. You just have to look and see. And it's also marked by its own logic, that's the most important thing. Trails have logic. If you comprehend it, you find the trail.”
“I'm on vacation today. I have no will to comprehend and no head for logic. You do the comprehending and I'll enjoy the scenery.”
“Not a chance. I'll walk behind you and look at your butt. It's much more beautiful and I also deserve enjoyment.”
Though he was her husband, she gave him a look that mothers give to their adolescent sons: a look of puzzlement, hope, anxiety diluted by amusement and curiosity. She never had an adolescent son, and ever since the disaster she has known she won't have one. But for many years she has been a teacher at the local high school and she knows the look that mothers give their young sons and she now gives her husband.
I feel fluttering inside. Have I any more sons in my body? Is there hope for me?
The beautiful biblical words tug the womb and the heart: “Could I have a husband tonight and bear sons?” A husband? My man? You?
They had done a lot of hiking. At first the two of them alone, later on with their son. First when he floated and tossed in her belly, later on wrapped in a homemade snuggly, dozing on her shoulder and breast, then in a baby carrier improvised by his father at the workshop of his army reserve unit. He stitched it together and bore it on his back, on this very back that now faced her.
Her tearful eyes were flooded with pictures. The son, a tiny cavalryman, riding on his father's back. The father galloping, neighing like a horse, the mother hurrying after them: “Be careful! Please. He's scared. He'll fall. Be careful!”
But her prophecy did not come to pass. True, the child was frightened, but he enjoyed his fright, as children do. He laughed. He grew. Stood on his feet. Took his first steps. Fell as babies fall and got up again. His parents' agility was apparent even thenâin his step, his stance, his stumbles, his smile.
In the beginning they hiked with him nearby, in the scrubland of poppies and chrysanthemums east of the moshava and the patches of pink flax on the hill beyond the avocado grove. Later to the little pond, hidden from the world, where they would head on a hot summer's day and where her older brother had taught her to swim and dive when she was a girl. And when the son began to walk confidently they also took him to Grandpa Ze'ev's wadi, which is what they called the wadi where his big carob tree stoodâGrandpa's big carob, to be precise.
There, in that wadi, she and her brother had hiked with their grandfather when they were children. There he taught them to identify wildflowers, to locate and gather their seeds. Under that carob tree he told them a story that later on she would write down for her son: the story about the prehistoric man who lived in the nearby cave, the one with the deep pit, where sometimes a wandering sheep or goat would fall in, and afterward there'd be an awful stench.
And from that wadi she would later hike with her husband to the gullies beyond, climbing and descendingâ“We hauled ass north,” he would say in his army slangâand go where they would not see another soul. They loved to make love outdoors and had their favorite secret places. And from there onward and upward to the top of the hill where they could see down the other side, which for them was a pleasantly familiar view, and for their son a strange and distant and inviting and wonderful world: Come closer, touch and smell, come and fill the cabinet of your memory.
And then the two of them, just the father and son, began to take hikes without her. “Hikes for guys,” he would say, and one day he even added: “Girls not invited.”
That's what he said, and I just laughed. I didn't imagine what was coming. I never had that famous intuition, the foreknowledge attributed to women, especially to mothers. Even on the day of the disaster itself I didn't sense a thing.
Hikes for guys. Just the two of them together. The little guy has to learn from the big guy all the nonsense that a father has to teach his sonâhow to light a campfire, to know which leaves could be used for tea, to walk barefoot on the groundâand girls were likely to get nervous: “What if he steps on broken glass?” And “What if there's a snake?” And “Even Grandpa Ze'ev always walks in his work boots.”
“If a snake shows up we'll deal with it, right, Neta?”âthat's what we called him, our son, who grew up complaining: “They laugh at me in kindergarten. Why did you give me a girl's name?”
“Laugh back at them.”
And how to find the North Star and drive the old pickup truckâNeta on his father's lap, his three-, four-, five-, and six-year-old hands gripping the wheel with excitementâand how to tie a hitch knot, and improve night vision by looking to the side, and to identify and recognize everything the ear hears and the finger feels and the nose smells and the eye sees: “This is a porcupine quill, and this is a snakeskin, feel how delicate and thin it is. Touch it, Neta, don't be afraid, it's just his skin, he's not here, he shed his skin and slithered away. And even if he were hereâI'm here, protecting you.
“You hear that, Neta? Listen carefullyâthat's the cawing of a jaybird and that's the trilling of a falcon and that's the wailing of a curlew and that's the chirping of a finch and that's the tsk-tsking of a robin redbreast. Every year a redbreast like that comes to our yard, always to the same tree. We planted the tree, that's true, but in his opinion it's his tree. Now smell: this yellow flower is called inula. Your mother thinks it stinks. Smell it and tell me what you think. It's like camphor, not bad. Close your eyes. You should smell things with your eyes closed. Just with your nose. You can remember smells better than what you see and what you hear. This smell is inula, this is common rue, this is the mastic tree, this is thyme, and, best of allâsage. Sage is our friend. If you can remember all the names, I'll tell Grandpa Ze'ev and he'll be really happy. Maybe he'll take you to the big carob tree in his wadi and the cave next to it, and he'll also teach you the names of plants and tell you about the caveman that once lived there and make a wooden club for you too, in case a bad dog might come or a poisonous snake or a bad person. And when you get a little bigger, he'll teach you to shoot his old Mauser and hit the bull's-eye.
“And these are the tracks of a hyena, it looks like a big dog, with a low butt and high shoulders. Look, Neta: the footprints of the front legs are bigger than the footprints of the back legs. What are you laughing about? Daddy said âbutt'? You say âbutt' too. We'll say it together: Butt. Butt. Butt. Butt.
“And here's another thing, really interesting: this stone. Every stone in the field has an upper side and a lower side, the side of the earth and darkness and the side of the sun and light. You see? The underside is smooth. There's only a little dirt on it and a bit of spiderweb. And the top, the sunlight side, is rough. Touch it, feel this. This is called lichen. If a stone has lichen on the bottom it means that somebody turned it upside down. Somebody picked it up and didn't put it back the right way.”
“Nature looks like one big mess,” he told her more than once, “but it's not. Everything in nature is in its place.” And she smiled to herself as she remembered, because that's what he would say when they were making love: “What a mess in this bed! One leg there, one leg here, and this little friend, what's he doing here? Let's put him in place. Here. Much better when everything's organized.”
“So come, Neta, let's put the stone back in its place. Here, the way it was. You see these little sprouts? How here they're totally white and only their tips are green? They sprouted underneath, crawled sideways to escape, and only when they got into the light did they become green. Everything white was under the stone, and everything green was outside. And that tells us one more thingâthat it was moved recently. This is interesting, right, Neta? We're like police detectives.”
“Hikes for guys,” he told her. He looked at their son, their son looked at him, and the two of themâlike generous winnersâat her. Who could top a pair of guys like this, a father and son, smiling at each other, sharing secrets and schemes? Hikes for guys on hills in the south, hikes for guys in the big cornfields north of the moshava, where they picked fresh ears of the sweet corn she loved so much.
“We'll roast them for Mommy on the fire. Come here, I'll show you how.”
“I brought you this, Mommy, is it yummy?”
“Eat, just for you.”
I ate. I enjoyed. I got angry.
And hikes for guys along the rocks on the seashore, and over the rocks behind the Crusader fortress, where at Hanukkah time the cyclamen are already in bloom. “Lookee here, what a miracle,” Grandpa Ze'ev told me when he was alive and I was a girl. “These flowers are blooming, and their green leaves haven't even pushed through the dirt. This only happens here, by us. So close to the village and nobody knows. Just you and me.”
And a hike for guys in the desert, for the first and last time, twelve years ago exactly, the hike after which they never hiked again, not the guys alone or me with themâand to tell the truth, we never did anything together again. Twelve years have passed, which for me seem like a hundred.
I see him getting ready to go. I know him and don't know him. I again take note of the changes in him. Were it not for the disaster that caused them I could happily smile inside. Despite the time gone by and everything that happened, I still look young, as I see reflected in the mirror and the eyes of my students and their parents, the misty gaze of men and women in the street. And he, you, my manâthat's what I called you thenâbecame a different man, you lost your looks.
I know: It can't just be dismissed as aging. Aging is slow, always preserving some youthful features, which is gratifying at first and, laterâwhen it's clear that they linger only to remind us and taunt usâis annoying. Whereas in your case the change is complete, like an insect's metamorphosis.
And I look at him and again count the ways: His smile is erased. His fire, his eternal flame, is extinguished. His golden skin, the delight of my fingers and eyes, has paled and chilled and lost its luster. His good smell, the myrrh of early manhood, has evaporated. His bodyâonce the body of a youthâbecame thick and clumsy. He didn't get fat and weak; he actually got stronger. His arms, once shapely and nimble, became the heavy arms of a bear with a fearsome hug.
My man, my first husband, golden and lean, has disappeared. A second husbandâwhite and thick and differentâhas taken his place. His thickness is pure power. His whiteness is the whiteness of death. The eye of the sun does not tan him, and human eyes are averted.
I remember: One day he cut himself, and blood flowed from his finger. He didn't even look at me when I bandaged it, but I was filled with joy: He's alive. His blood is as red as ever. If only I could, I would have taken that second white and strange husband and cut him open, birthing my other husband from inside him.