By Elisha Porat
translated from the Hebrew language by Asher Harris I
Edited by Charlotte Mair
That summer, a few days after I was de-mobbed, I had a very strange experience. One afternoon I had a sudden urge to take an old school exercise book and a large yellow pencil out of one of the boxes in which I kept my few belongings. I didnt yet have a permanent room in the kibbutz, and I was constantly moved from one old hut to another. Once I was condemned to a room that was narrow and dirty, and once I found myself in a room where the floor tiles were sparkling but the walls were cracked and there were no windows. Another time I awoke in a strange room filled with a stinking pile of mattresses among the decaying huts of the Nachal unit. I used to get up for work in the sheepfold while it was still night. The sand paths were still damp, and the snail tracks clearly marked. I would spend the day working hard in the humid heat, burrowing away in the manure and absorbing deep into my skin the sharp smell of sheep which never wore off. In the afternoon I would wake up from a steaming sleep, soaked in sweat, lying between the sheets and thinking of my young life. Between one duty and the next and between one awakening and the next, there is always a time when the soul flutters here and there, searching for its future. But I was so eager to know what my life held in store and at the same time so caught up in the pressing details of the present that I never even managed to plan one step ahead.
Everything that happened took me by surprise and nothing was done out of choice, and yet everything was so expected and so natural that I couldnt even imagine that beyond the steaming horizon there might be a different life, close enough to touch. After stretching out this sweet interlude as long as I could, slowly waking up out of a fantasy dream full of memories of my recent army service and full of strange visions of the future, I got up and left the hut.
Beyond the hut encampment, just behind the walls, there was an abandoned plantation of subtropical fruit trees, guavas that had ceased to bear fruit, worm-ridden pomegranates and a few loquat trees whose leaves had withered. I spent many hours in that forsaken garden when I felt weak and drained, examining the veins of the leaves and the peeling trunks, looking at the clusters of white snails packed together in the upper branches. In the silence that reigned after the overpowering bleating of the sheep, I imagined hearing voices calling me and directing me to my new path. My whole body was taut. I strained my ears to their utmost. I climbed up to the tops of the trees to shorten the distance to those uppermost regions. But I heard nothing, and I had to come down and beat a path through the dry thorns out of the plantation and search for what I so much needed somewhere else. There was nobody waiting for me in the whole, wide world. I had done my duty. I had completed my stint and felt free to wander half the night. On the other side of the hill the kibbutz hummed with life.
Mothers called their children with long-drawn-out cries whose echoes could be heard all over the green fields. Those days I had already begun to ask myself those same questions which trouble me today. Does my young life have any meaning? Why do I drift aimlessly from hut to hut? Who is it that directs my life in such a way that I wake up to the stinking breath of sheep? Is this a test that I have to go through? And what comes after, after I have passed through each of its difficult stages? This habit of asking myself questions about my life while I wander along the paths and by the hedges hasnt left me until today. And eventually, as usual, I find myself in the small, leaf-covered plot of the cemetery. I have already written elsewhere that our cemetery is outside reality. It is outside space, for its surroundings are neither dwellings nor garage, but a beaten down piece of ground that preserves the place as it used to be years ago. I have also written elsewhere that our cemetery is outside time, for what meaning can there be here to the passage of the hours? What does it matter if it is now late afternoon? And what if the wind that rustles through the branches soon dies down and gives way to the waves of croaking that rise from the swamp, from the thousands of frogs that will soon come out to hunt mosquitoes?
I sat down on a mound of sand. The cool sand penetrated my clothes and touched my skin. If there is one memory that I cherish, it is the touch of sand on my bare skin. When I move my leg about in the tunnels of the ant-eating insects, the grains of sand slide out of the holes and along my muscles, get caught up for a moment between the hairs and continue to slide as far as the delicate folds. I was beginning to consider letting myself fall a prey to that kind of self-pity I enjoyed so much. I would fix my eyes on the sun sinking into the not-so distant sea and abandon myself wholly to daydreams, an almost unchanging series of yearnings, each one leading to another.
A parade of longings would arrange itself in my head and step out on its tireless march. But all at once something slipped. A figure stole into the shadows of the cemetery trees. I heard footsteps and then the farm sounds of water rushing through pipes and the short tap-tap of the prongs of a rake on gravel. And suddenly time stood still and it was as if my whole being burst out of the sand and out of the earth itself like some shining balloon. I began to hover between the slowly darkening sky and the lengthening shadows on earth.
Everything came to a halt. The yearnings disappeared and I had the strange feeling that I might be vouchsafed a rare glimpse into my future life. Deep inside me I felt a thrill of excitement. It was as if someone had promised me that a small window would now be thrown open, and through it my life would run as if on a screen. In my ears there were voices which I imagined were telling me the longed-for story of my life. It was as if someone were measuring out the years of my labour, distinguishing between one job and another, permitting and forbidding and offering advice.
All I had to do was give myself over to the sweet sounds and not even allow myself to think that I agreed to it all. Nor in fact was I terribly surprised since I had long hoped for some such illumination. When I was still walking along the thorny path between the withered guava trees, I guessed that I was approaching a joyous revelation such as this. I was already on my feet, shaking the sand from my trousers, and hurrying barefoot towards myth details that the pencil tore the pages, but I took no notice. I turned the pages without stopping, panting with passion as I wrote down everything about the strange incident that had happened to me, the figure that had stolen into the cemetery, the hands that had carried out the holy task, watering the plants and raking the leaves and cleaning up around the tombstone. And there was a kind of insubstantiality about the whole incident, as if the figure had no name and as if I did not know her, and as if I didnt exactly know who she was or what she was doing here now at this disconnected moment. I threw myself into the writing until darkness filled the room and I had to stop.
When I got up to put on the light, it seemed as if I had written all there was to write. I felt how I was slowly being drained of the extreme tension that had held me. Afterwards I took the exercise book in my hands and wondered at how I could have written so fast and what actually was lying there between the pages. I was sweating terribly and went outside to get some fresh air. One of my friends was already getting ready to go to the dining-room for supper. While I was writing I had been so detached from time that I did not realize how late it was getting. Whistles and shouts began to echo between the rotting huts, while a wonderful feeling of liberation came over me, a great lightness of my whole body. I threw the exercise book on to the bed and flung the pencil at the wall. I joined my friends and hopping on one leg I went with them to the dining-room. In the same way I sent the story to the editor of the literary quarterly. I found the quarterly, which was then a new publication, in the magazine reading room on the top story of the Cultural Centre of the kibbutz.
After the exhausting night milkings, I used to go into the empty room, turn on the lights, sit by the window and lose myself completely in reading the magazine. Fellows of my age, who had just been released from military service, used to publish poems and marvelous maiden stories. Their way was already laid out before them. Somebody pushed them and somebody else pulled them, and they wouldnt have to wait like me until they couldn’t deny their writing. They wouldnt spend ten years in silence, eating themselves up, maddeningly distancing themselves from what they really had to do.
I dont remember any more whether I copied out the story once or twice. Be that as it may, it was that same old exercise book and clumsy engraving pencil that I used. I gave the pages to our post office clerk and together we arranged the rebellious leaves in a brown envelope. Are you sure this is the correct address? She asked me. Are you sure there is an address like this in Tel Aviv? Yes, yes, I answered hastily. I turned pale and began to sweat and my pulse raced. The whole business was not very pleasant. It didnt suit people whose destiny was to work until they dropped. What a strange occupation, out of the ordinary! And just you wait, I said to myself, wait until it gets around in the kibbutz.
I quickly forgot the whole thing and put my writing out of my mind. I immersed myself in hard work and in the details of the daily routine. With whom could I share my distress? My co-workers with the flock were occupied with the sheep, and on their free evenings they would roast lambs meat, drink beer and make pigs of themselves. The other youngsters in the kibbutz were immersed in their jobs, their girl-friends and the modern machinery. I, on the other hand, felt wonderful music around me and wonders that were about to take place, while the world looked new from moment to moment. I sensed from afar that there was a different world which was destined for me as I was destined for it, but in the meantime I was a prisoner in the rat race. As a matter of fact, I wasnt unhappy with the situation. Somebody would have to appear from nowhere and drag me by my coattails until I realized that my time was getting short. If it didnt happen soon, I would never be able to join the chorus whose fresh voices I heard as I excitedly leafed through the pages of the literary quarterly.
Only our experienced librarian seemed to suspect me of something. Although he was always grumbling and complaining, he had a particular soft spot for me. After I had overcome the hurdles he used to place in the way of the readers, I could feel a kind of unspoken invitation. "Not everyone can be a reader, a genuine reader," as if he was trying to hint, "You have to exert yourself in order to ascend the ladder of reading." He used to hum old tunes to himself while bent over his files and shoot annoying questions at the tormented readers. "Why do you need to read, anyway? Isnt the newspaper enough? Anyway, who said that there was such an author whose books you insist on reading? In any case, its much more interesting outside. Theyre building the Kibbutz, fighting wars." "Why do you have to squeeze yourself into this miserable library where you cant even find a decent catalogue?" But I couldn’t suddenly open up, blushing with sudden shyness, and tell him of my attempts at writing. He would have asked me, "Why do you have to write yourself? Have you read everything that others have written? Who told you that what you have written hasn’t already been written by better writers than you? And anyway, there’s more than just a little bit of audacity in what you’re doing." "Who are you altogether?" "Here are all the works of Y. H. Brenner, have you read them?" "Have you seen the stories of A. N. Gnossin?" " Have you spared a glance at the volume of new poems by Avraham Shlonsky yet?"
But I knew that there was no way I could reveal my deepest thoughts to him. For even if he knew more than others, and even though he loved books to distraction, he would not be able to understand my little melody. In this way three weeks went by. Actually, I didn’t even expect an answer. The sudden fit of writing passed and I returned almost to routine. What I had experienced at the time of writing had already quieted down, and if annoying afterthoughts arose, I silenced them. I didn’t go by the cemetery again, and I tried not to remember that unique picture of the small figure stealing in to look after the tombstone. I also made an effort not to resurrect the moment of illumination that had impelled me a with a power that was completely new to me. I had learned my lesson and taken the hint. But I had no power to change the rest. I didn’t even dare to imagine that there might be groups of budding poets in the big city, and that I, if I only wanted, might be able to join them, and that everywhere, young men, beginning writers, were pressed against bookshelves. The post office clerk met me in the burning hot dining-room at midday, between one milking and the next. "Youve got an answer from Tel Aviv," she said, and since it was a big envelope, I was invited to the post office to collect it myself. Puzzled, I followed her. What was the meaning of the large envelope? Anyway, who had expected an answer from the editor of the quarterly? In fact, what did I have to do with all that remote and forgotten business?
We went into the post office and she handed me the envelope. After she closed the door behind her, she asked, "Have you told your father yet?" "What about?" I asked her. "What do I have to tell him about?" "About this envelope," the post office clerk said. "And about your first stories." Without waiting for an answer, she turned and went off. I looked for a hidden corner where I could be alone with the editors answer. I ran down the hill to my little, isolated hut, closed the door firmly behind me and opened the envelope. Pages of my old exercise book fluttered out of it. I recognized my hasty handwriting immediately and my wild pressure on the pencil. Then, when I shook the envelope, a piece of office paper with the name of the quarterly printed on it fell out as well.
My young heart began to beat and I sat down on my pallet and began to read. It wasn’t the editor himself who had answered but his assistant, the secretary of the editorial board. "Since the editor is busy and cannot read all the material that arrives …" and then, "It is obvious that this is your first story. e of literature? What do you think?"