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Babbles in the Night by Elisha Porat


By Elisha Porat

Translated from the Hebrew by Alan Sacks

I keep having the same strange dream: the small loamy lawn squeezed between the water tower and the old dining hall, filled with Legionnaires in crisp uniforms and silver helmets sparkling in the eerie, dreamy light. The points of their helmets cut through the bright sky far above. The rough Khaki neck flaps dangling behind their heads flutter in the breeze.

I can't say just when I first saw this fantastic vision, which always appears precisely between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m. Some nights, the nightmare and its after-images are so disturbing that I wake up drenched in sweat, my heart pounding and blood roaring in my ears. This dream springs, I know, from my early childhood, when I saw Arab Legionnaires, resplendent in their uniforms and gleaming helmets, sauntering past the leopard cages in Tel Aviv little zoo. I saw them again later passing in an open military vehicle on the old Hadera - Tul Karem road. They strode through the kibbutz like conquerors, I'm sure of that now. And they bore themselves with the air of rulers. I'm not mistaken about that now either, for I always watch from below, a young, frightened boy passed so close to the dear red earth in his hideaway that no error or exaggeration is possible.

I'm not alone in my dream. My mother usually is with me, she too strolling at some distance through the zoo, lost in engrossing conversation with her aunt from Tel Aviv. The minute details of some unsavory family incident, which crops up during their talk with the names of family members and forgotten relatives, excites my adolescent fancy. As she walks off with her aunt, my mother never notices the swarms of Legionnaires rapidly filling the zoo.

Or perhaps that is my absent-minded father with me, in a gray casquette that he often wore into the city. He is talking quietly yet warmly with a boyhood friend who left for the city after several good but unpromising years on the small kibbutz. He too is behaving customarily in every way and also has no sense of the threat beginning to brew within the boundaries of the zoo. What's going on, am I the only who feels war looming? Is only this little boy able to sense the danger invading the zoo through the holes in the fence? Or is my imagination multiplying fantasies ad infinitum, enough for many years of dreams? Some nights, my dreams repeat themselves with minor changes. One dream switches places with the next. The dream sometimes appears in a different guise. The scene is similar. Now we stand on a reddish field packed hard by barefoot children, close by the tent camp that existed on our small kibbutz in its early years. The tents form a while semicircle behind which, as in a slow-motion movie, the wooden scaffolding of the first multistory structure, later called the security building, slowly rises. Am I only imaging it or do I in fact recognize among the identical tents that special one in which my mother and father live?

The silver-helmeted Legionnaires are wandering among the tents. What the hell are they doing there? Seeking souvenirs? Looking for pictures? Prying into albums? And then they lead the kibbutz members, their hands bound with rough cords, from the bundles of hay, toward the gate to the groves. They're going into some remote field, the locus of secret fears. Do I stand there alone watching this drama or with other youngsters my age just as I? Dressed only in thin undershirts, we hide in the dense stand of eucalyptus trees watching, utterly helpless, as the lordly Legionnaires drive the members into the small tent camp. Weeping won't help now and you can't yell in a dream because the image immediately will dissolve, the hypnotic theater of memories will dim and I'll awake in my bed, covered in sweat, my pulse racing and the time on the clock glowing above my bed as usual between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m.

I'm certain that events of my early childhood blend into the dream. The fear of searches carried out by British troops. The terrifying siege of our neighboring kibbutz, Givat-Hayim, which ended in bloodshed and death and panic. A children's trip to the Tel Aviv zoo. A boy lost in the crowd and tumult. A boy whose mother's hands slipped from his grasp, separated from him by the rough jostling of foreign soldiers with khaki flaps fluttering behind their necks. But how are all these elements, each in their own exquisite logic leading inexorably to the next, fused in such a fantastic manner? How do they coalesce into a general picture of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, a small village on the fringe of Samaria conquered and occupied by the Arab Legion?

I return in my dreams to all-too-familiar features of the landscape: the old kibbutz pickup truck sunk in the sand somewhere east of the collective; deep paths of sand leading into the hills towards the feared village of Kakun; a group of tardy travelers stuck end route oast curfew; darkness, packs of jackals, roving gangs, and worst of all - a treacherous engine that died in the most dangerous of places. Here I always stop and tarry. There are strange alleys flooded by images streaming from long-forgotten childhood dreams. The eye lingers over the soft, slowly darkening horizon where the dense orchards end and a view suddenly opens onto fields and gardens and caravans of camels bearing the melons of Kakun. Sweet watermelon juice trickles down the camels. In the fabulous chaos of the dream, I often see the juice transformed into blood right before my child's eyes. The blood drips from the camels' humps into the rich, black earth famous for its fertility. From the spot where the dripping blood seeps into the ground sprout castor oil plants, thousands of which once flourished in the groves. Some of them have remained hidden in neglected corners from the teeth of modern farming. A group of men is sprinting from the idled pickup. Stray words are softly spoken. It's hardly a stone's throw to the kibbutz fence, yet there is a feeling of total abandonment and bloodshed. The dawdling boy must be dragged along so he won't hold up the others. I hear the effort required by this trek. I feel the moisture in the sweat-stained clothes, I tremble all over from the chill of the dew and fear and excitement.

The small band stops to rest and breathe beside the plum tree that once was hit by lightning. This is a familiar spot in my dreams. The east gate of the kibbutz isn't far from here. You can even trade shouts with the guards on the eastern side. The tree is completely charred, its scorched limbs frozen against the night sky. I'm terribly jealous of the children who saw flames shoot forth, followed by a billowing pillar of smoke, when the bolt struck the giant tree. I remember only its blackened skeleton. Occasionally, I ruefully regret having been born only after the fire. The blasted plum tree makes an arresting intersection in my whimsical dreamscapes. East of that point, terror reigns. Nearby lurk the Arab shepherds and packs of jackals run rampant. Then someone takes me by the hand and I'm in the cool sand on which I've landed. With a final effort, walking hard and fast, we must reach the kibbutz. We're wary of the deep shadows in the banana fields and steer clear of anything suspicious, avoiding all sudden movement and noise. Finally, we arrive, sweating but safe and sound, at the eastern gate.

At this point in the dream, I always crack under the tension building within me. I break into childish tears, uttering cries unintelligible even to me. Mercifully, once again I'm gently borne, comforted and caressed and muttering in that cryptic nocturnal language until I fall asleep. Although the language in my nightmares certainly has its own linguistic logic, its meaning is so elusive that I despair of ever comprehending it. To me, this is so much babbling in the night.

In that period between 1:30 and 2:15 am, there sometimes appears before me a nightmarish vision of the Ein-Hahoresh I knew as a boy. The past thrusts itself into the present. From the member's quarters groans erupt, babies cry and wail far off in the infant's house. I hear strange shrieks carried on the balmy night wind. However much I strain my ears, I can't fathom the nighttime howling from the hills. What is the source of this potent, macabre energy? What is it that causes the residents of this happy community such pain? In what language do dreamers of nightmares call out? Who do they summon in their agony?

In my nightly dreams, which follow laws over which I have no control, a distant vision often appears: the soft, white limestone path leading to Givat-Hayim. barbed wire fences coil around the village. All the ground outside is pocked like a field of mole hills after a rainstorm. Armed British soldiers fill out the picture. I lay at the edge of the woods where the sewage gardens end. Deep fissures rend the trunks of the huge eucalyptus trees abutting the kibbutz fence. The resin drips, the aroma is good, the bark is rough to the touch. What more do I need to complete the memory? Am I lying there alone or some of my little friends with me? Had the firing already begun when we crawled to our vantage point or was it the first volleys that had aroused our juvenile spirits, moving us to hug the ground and crawl through the craters in the sewage gardens to the fringe of the thicket? By the concrete post at the gate nearby some people are crouching. There are cries and shouts. Someone screams during lulls in the shooting while other run. shivers score my back, etched forever like scars deep into my memory and impressed into the dramas of my dream. One of my young friends suddenly shouts to me that the man at the gate, the one wildly screaming, is my father.

I look towards the gate and see my father, Elkeh Yosselevitch, the great, noble Elkeh, stricken with rage and bitterness. Is he the one so startlingly cursing the British soldiers? Is that really his mouth? Is that his tongue? Never in my life had I seen him so savage. The children warn me to be careful because the English are shooting. I'm torn in my dream. I yearn to run to him and warn him, to end his cursing, to be swallowed in his arms. But I cannot move from my place. Bound by the tight unbreakable bonds of my dream, I can only twitch and imagine myself calling, "Dad, Elk, watch out, bullets are flying everywhere. Take shelter. Hide in the shaft of shade behind the bunker". And from now on, in my nightmares of the English siege, which beset me whichever way I turn, the soft, white limestone path to Givat-Hayim knifes through it. Deaf to my cries, my father faces the gunfire, my tongue disobeys me and the heavy words emerge in that incomprehensible night language. At times, when I awake feeling agitated and utterly helpless, I contemplate myself in the silence of the night. Am I unwittingly also mingling my hoarse voice with the nightmare chorus on our little kibbutz? On the flood-lit sidewalk outside, are my cries to my father, too far away for me to reach him, heard by late passerby in that same nocturnal babble?

I've vowed to myself many, many times that I won't be lazy when I get up during the night; that I'll sit at my desk and turn on the lamp; that I'll open the drawer and take out a pencil and begin writing in my notebook in an uninterrupted rush while the images I've just seen are still fresh in my mind, while I still bear the odors that enveloped me and my ears still ring with the roar of gunfire and the cries for help. My hands are damp and slippery from the sweat of my dreams. My heart throbs and a persistent, inexplicable tension racks my sleep-deprived body.

Later, glancing at the shadowy letters darting across my note pad, what I see in the hastily scribbled pages on my desk is not an imaginary Ein-Hahoresh or even the real, familiar one. What lies before me is a likeness of the strange nightmare version of Ein-Hahoresh beckoning me from the pages in that unintelligible language. I look wearily at my watch but the time is always the same: between 1:30 and 2:15 a.m.

© Elisha Porat

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