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Authors: Meir Shalev

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BOOK: Two She-Bears
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4

Everyone thinks now and then about suicide, and some even ponder the best way to do it and wonder what heartbroken relatives and shocked friends will say. In general, there's something appealing and intriguing and contagious about suicide, and sometimes the thought arises not only out of pain and despair and distress but a desire to punish somebody else or to arouse pity and attract attention or perhaps out of temporary boredom or weakness. Therefore the members of the committee decided to tell the British police sergeant that Nahum Natan was a soft, weak man who lived alone and could not deal with the hard labor and the loneliness, and because he had no one close to him to share his troubles with, no wife and no children to take care of, he was influenced by what the two previous suicides had done, and did the same.

This version of events was also written in the telegram sent to Nahum's father, Rabbi Eliyahu of Istanbul, dealing him a devastating blow. Not only had he lost his only son, but he was a distinguished rabbi, and the news of the suicide gave rise to theories and whispers in his congregation. He wrote a Hebrew eulogy for his son, titling it “My Son Was Devoured by a Beast,” as Jacob mourned Joseph, suggesting that Nahum had not taken his own life but was murdered, for there are also wild beasts who walk on two legs, and one of these had eaten him. But in the text of his eulogy, the rabbi made use of linguistic allusions to hint that the suicide story was plausible.

In any case, the rabbi quickly sailed from Istanbul to Haifa, accompanied by his loyal beadle—a strong silent man in an old suit and soft red shoes like a baby's, with huge hands, a strong chin, and a curly blue-black beard as square as that of an Assyrian king. Awaiting them at the Haifa port was a driver who took them to the moshava. The secretary of the committee, as well as its chairman, the aforementioned Kipnis, welcomed them and took them into the meeting room. Waiting at the table were the treasurer and the principal of the district school, and Ze'ev Tavori and Yitzhak Maslina were also present, sitting on a bench by the wall.

“These are the two witnesses,” indicated the chairman of the committee, after the greetings and consolations. “Neighbors of Nahum, may his memory be a blessing. The Honorable Rabbi may ask them questions.”

The rabbi asked and the witnesses testified. The neighbor began by speaking the truth about the rain and the gutter and the leakage and the ladder, and the killer began with a lie, that he heard someone that night in his house, a creaking door, intruding footsteps. “A thief caught in the act, Honorable Rabbi,” he said, employing a phrase from the Torah. “He was in my house and left.” When he rose to get his rifle, said Tavori, he was shocked to find it missing and rushed outside and saw a figure running away in the rain, carrying a riflelike object, and ran after him.

Both of them mentioned the tremendous diagonal lightning, and both emphasized that by its light they had seen what happened next: the fleeing figure halted in the field, beyond the fence of Yitzhak Maslina, and before they understood what the thief was about to do, the shot rang out, and when they hurried there, “I from my yard and Yitzhak from his yard, we saw that it was your son, Nahum, of blessed memory, Your Eminence,” and Ze'ev Tavori, to the rabbi's great dismay, even added the Arabic words “Allah have mercy,” and said that because of the darkness and the rain “and the gunshot, forgive me, that blew off his head,” he recognized him at first by his boots, which were unique boots familiar to everyone in the moshava, the right one lying in the mud and the left one on his foot.

“The boots which I have given him,” moaned the rabbi, bursting into tears, “for him to walk his new path and work the land.” And the muscular beadle, who had till now not spoken a word, suddenly asked where those boots were, had someone taken them?

Maslina did not miss a beat. “The boots are at my house,” he said, looking first at Tavori and then at the rabbi. “We ran right away to get the chairman of the committee, Your Eminence, Mr. Kipnis, who is sitting here, and the chairman called the police, and I feared that in all the commotion someone would steal them. Boots like those you don't see every day, especially not around here.”

The rabbi said he would like to see them. Maslina hurried home and fetched them. The rabbi looked at them silently. He choked up, his eyes welling with tears, and finally managed to say, “ ‘Know now.' ”

“Know what?” asked the committee secretary fearfully.

“ ‘Know now whether it is thy son's coat or not,' ” said the rabbi, and pointed: “It is still stained with blood.”

“It won't come out.” Ze'ev Tavori chuckled. “Blood never comes out in leather, Your Eminence. My father once smashed a thief's head with a club, and the bastard's blood is still on the belly strap of his saddle.”

The bereaved father gave him a look, as if wondering, From what stinking pond did this vulgarian slither? He then turned to Yitzhak Maslina and said, “These are boots for agriculture, not for city folk. You take them. I think they are your size.”

“I already tried them on,” Yitzhak quickly said, surprising himself no less than his interlocutor, “and they fit me perfectly.”

Silence prevailed. Yitzhak realized he had said something awful. Felt that his body suddenly wanted to expand, to overwhelm his contemptible soul, to speak the truth, to tell Rabbi Eliyahu Natan how his son had died. But Ze'ev Tavori sensed all this too. He looked sideways at his neighbor and remarked, “Beautiful boots. You can wear them to the pasture with your new cow.”

Maslina sank again into his seat. “Thank you, Honored Rabbi,” he said. “Every time I put on these boots I will remember your son, may he rest in peace.”

The bereaved father asked a few more questions. They bore no sign of suspicion or disbelief. He did not express the possibility that his son was murdered, nor did he inquire whether anything in his behavior had indicated suffering or despair, as if not wanting to hear the typical answers. Who can know his hidden thoughts? Did he imagine the terrible magnitude of the straight-faced lies he was told?

5

After the conversation and the testimonies, the rabbi and his beadle were taken to the cemetery. In those early days only a few graves had been dug there, and on the grave of Nahum Natan there was merely a simple wooden marker. The rabbi climbed out of the carriage and nearly collapsed, and the beadle, as if accustomed to this, quickly took him in his huge arms, clasped him to his chest, and carried him to the grave, his legs dangling in the air, and, because there was no chair or bench, did something not seen here before or since: he got down on all fours like a dog, and the rabbi sat on his broad back like a man on a bench, placed his hands on his knees, and looked at the grave of his son.

The astonished escorts went to wait outside the fence, sensing that the rabbi wanted to sit there alone. After a few minutes the beadle raised one hand from the ground, gave his nose a quick, strong scratch, and replaced it without shifting his position. After a quarter of an hour the rabbi got up, and so did the beadle, brushing bits of dirt from his knees. They left the cemetery, and the chairman of the committee invited them to lunch at his home.

“Everything is prepared and our home is strictly kosher,” he declared, and the secretary suddenly smiled and said that Mrs. Kipnis was a marvelous cook, and added: “This is a great honor for us. Too bad it's because of such a great tragedy.”

The rabbi accepted the invitation. Despite his anguish he needed to eat, but lost his appetite and failed to enjoy his meal. He ate sparingly and with good manners, watching the others at the table and thinking about Joseph's brothers, eating and drinking beside the pit into which they had cast him. His face expressed no suspicion, just guilt—every parent feels guilty over the death of a son or daughter—and sadness.

He ended his meal with two small cups of very sweet hot tea and finally mustered the courage to ask to see his son's house. The little group left the house of the chairman of the committee and accompanied him. The chairman unlocked the door with a key he had brought, the rabbi entered and walked around the vacant house—two rooms, a pantry, a kitchen with a big porch facing the yard—examining the few clothes in the closet and the books on the shelf, folios of Talmud and prayer books for Sabbath and High Holy Days, alongside books about agriculture.

“He had just planted a vineyard,” said the secretary, “and planned to build a henhouse.”

“ ‘Planted a vineyard and hath not yet used the fruit thereof,' ” murmured the rabbi. He looked at the narrow single bed and loudly wept. “Not yet a father, nor yet did he know a woman.”

This was the first time the rabbi had wept since he arrived at the moshava. The beadle quickly went and stood close beside him, as if offering his body to lean on, and Ze'ev Tavori, who had entered the house uninvited, angrily thought to himself, He knew, the dog. He knew, all right. But his lips were sealed, and his face was blank.

Then the rabbi asked everyone to withdraw. He stayed in the house alone, and no one knows what he did there, but apparently he looked out the bedroom window and saw something, because he left the house at once and rushed to the fence between the yard and the neighbor's yard, where a tall young woman was standing.

The young woman's eyes met the eyes of the rabbi. She covered her mouth with her hand. The rabbi trembled as he looked at her. Though tall and broad-shouldered, she was also slim, and though she was slim, his heart and her eyes told him she was pregnant, and his heart filled with vague longing, which arises at times in the heart of a man who sees a pregnant woman, even if he is an elderly rabbi and she is young and foreign.

Ze'ev Tavori, who stood beside the chairman of the committee together with Yitzhak Maslina and the secretary and the beadle, strode toward her and grumbled, “Get inside, Ruth!” And the rabbi understood at once that this was his wife, and that between the two there was no love, but fear on her part and suspicion and jealousy on his.

The woman called Ruth was about to do what her husband told her, but the rabbi said, “Come here, please,” because he wished to see her walking, either to support his hunch or dispel it.

She drew near, and the rabbi said to her, “May it be a boy,” and he did not know what she was feeling, that it would be a girl, and did not imagine what she knew, that this would be his granddaughter, the daughter of his son who was killed by her husband.

“Get in the house, Ruth,” Ze'ev said again. “Now!”

He suddenly felt dizzy. She went back into her house and closed the door behind her, and Ze'ev opened and closed his fists until the dizziness passed.

The chairman of the committee asked if the Honorable Rabbi wished to put his son's house and parcel of land up for sale, and the muscular beadle said not to burden the rabbi with such questions but to direct them to him and that he would let them know soon. The chairman asked if the rabbi would like to erect a gravestone, and the beadle said that for the time being the rabbi would make do with the simple marker that was there, because in the near future he would move his son's bones to the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, to the family plot where his mother and father were buried and his elder brother, and there he would erect a permanent stone.

“And there I buried Nahum's mother,” said the rabbi, adding that when his time came he too would be buried there.

He gestured to the beadle. Everyone could tell he intended to deliver words of farewell.

“ ‘I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me,' ” he began, but the words, though they came from his mouth and left his body, offered him no relief. Nothing lightened the terrible weight of agony and guilt, the “if” and the “if only” that tormented him like whips and scorpions. Again he faltered, almost collapsed, and the beadle again wrapped his arms around him and carried him to the car.

The driver rushed to the front of the car and turned the ignition crank, put on his cap, and got in his seat. The visit was over. The children from the area, who had waited for hours for this very moment, shouted joyfully and clapped their hands. The car drove off, vanishing in the distance as the children chased it, and reappeared after three years that seemed like only a day: same driver, same cap on his head, and the very same passengers, the rabbi and the beadle, the former of short stature and teary eyes, the other with the rock-solid body and blue-blackness of his square beard and the red shoes, the span of his shoulders, his strong embracing arms.

In that year, a new synagogue was built in our moshava, to replace the shack used for prayers in the early years, and Rabbi Eliyahu Natan had brought with him a Torah scroll in memory of his son, Nahum, to assure the ascent of his immortal soul. The Torah was too heavy for the elderly, grieving rabbi to lift, and the beadle carried it just as he had carried the rabbi himself, hugging it to his chest like a baby.

The people of the moshava were delighted by this precious and important donation, and happier still about its meaning, for if the rabbi had suspected that one of them had harmed his son, he would not be revisiting the place and certainly not bearing such a gift.

Rabbi Eliyahu Natan brought the Torah scroll into the synagogue with joy and sorrow, prayer and tears, and then asked to see his son's house once more. In the meanwhile it had been sold to another man, who received him with respect and invited him in, but the rabbi said that going inside would be hard on him and he only wanted to meet the buyer, about whom he had heard through the beadle who arranged the sale, and to wish him success and well-being.

As he walked from his son's house to the home of the chairman of the committee, the rabbi tried to remember the name of the witness who took his son's boots and wondered if he had worn them as he had permitted him to do. Even as he searched his memory, he saw a faraway figure in the field, and as he wondered who it was, his feet already knew and began to lead him to that person. When he drew closer he saw that this was the same woman, just as he thought, the young woman he had seen on his earlier visit in the yard adjacent to his son's home, and whose face had not strayed from his memory and indeed inhabited his dreams.

He now saw that she was carrying a baby boy, about a year old, in her arms. It had been three years ago that he had seen her pregnant, and he wondered, Where is the child who was then in her womb?

The woman stood beside a farmer who was digging a drainage ditch at the edge of his vineyard, her eyes fixed on the shovel that pierced the ground and threw off clumps of dirt.

The digger quickly climbed out of the ditch and bowed courteously and said, “Welcome, Honorable Rabbi, all of us here are still very sorry about your son, Nahum,” and came closer and said, “The poor woman. Every time someone digs the ground, she comes to watch.”

He resumed his digging. And the rabbi, more emotionally than he intended, gave the woman his blessing.

She did not answer. It was clear to him that she recognized and remembered him and knew why he had come before and why now, but she gave him one short, vague look and then turned back to the ditch and the pile of earth beside it. She paid no further attention to him nor to the farmer who was digging, but only to the shovel unearthing layer after layer of soil, and to the cry that she alone heard, crying out to her from the ground.

BOOK: Two She-Bears
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