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DWINDLING FRIENDS by Elisha Porat
Translated from Hebrew by Alan Sacks


        I've come to feel in recent weeks that my circle of friends is    shrinking, dwindling away. They vanish, one after another, snatched in darkness, disappearing into deep shadows. I pass them in car made of light, you might say, and they leap back, cringe, sigh and give up on me. That's what hurts most of all; they've already given up on me. They don't wave hello or try to stop the careening car. It's as though they're shunning me, calling out, "Go ahead, we've already gotten used to the idea that you're gone. Look, you'll soon get used to it, too."

        When I adjust the lens and bring the focus closer, I see that there's no car of light, It's just a stretcher in an Ambulance or a bed wheeled onto the service elevator on a bustling Hospital corridor. They turn their faces aside so I won't see how flustered they are. In private, they're amazed at me: how is it that I don't feel the blow I've dealt them? Why don't I realize that I've let them down? Or that I scared them to death? Is my condition so severe that I can't understand I've betrayed them?

        At this point, I jump up and say, "That's it. I know that look." I saw exactly the same expressions of betrayal in the eyes of the wounded collected in an aid station at the blasted junction on the Golan Heights during the first days of the war.

        But today, the roles seem reversed. I, the one carried on the stretcher, am the betrayer while they, the healthy, the ones who secretly withdraw from the shriveling thread of my life, are the betrayed. Up there, in the fields of black basalt, everything was different. There was a hard, piercing look of betrayal on the faces of the wounded. It was as if they were trying to ask, "Where were all of you? What took you so long to get here?" I've never been able to forget that look of betrayal. I may be woozy just now, I may be master of neither my body nor my movements, in fact, I've been brought utterly helpless on a wheeled bed to the door of the elevator, but I have no trouble recognizing that haunting look.

        I've also discovered the power of learning by heart. I'm unable to write, and when I want to count or mark something with my hands, I can't. So what's left me? Memorizing, endlessly repeating my words. I've tried repeating out loud, but my voice has failed me, too. A strange hoarseness, deep inside, unlike anything I've ever known, has lodged in my throat. And so, with unsteady hands and a muzzled throat, I start repeating. It's like a churchgoer's worry beads or forgotten childhood rhymes. I recite them to myself as though I'm taking a sedative, some calming medicine.

        Just wait, you'll be up and about again, you'll leave this ward yet. If only you can remember the names. How few they are, how few they're becoming. But I must memorize even these remaining names. I don't want to lose them in the white darkness or forget them here among the tubes and resuscitators.

        For hours, I lay still in bed, burning the names into my memory. Later, when I felt a little stronger, I recited them aloud, not just in my head. You, my handful of friends, I'm indebted to you. It's not your smiles that have touched my heart. Nor is it the words you've stammered or the fact that you're with me. No, its the hidden concern I saw etched in your eyes.

        It's not for nothing that I've felt in the past weeks that my circle of friends is shrinking. It's mutual, I'm abandoning them, too. They have as much right to feel hurt as I do. In what way am I superior? How am I any better than most of them? If there's some veiled anger in my remarks, well, there's also a little in their darting gaze. After all, what I allowed myself, to make a sudden exit from the fabric of their lives, is arrogant and unforgivable, just like their fear of appearing before pushes my bed into the x-ray department.

        I must study and recast many things. I must completely relearn my life 's workings and this simple rule, that my friends do not dwindle away except to the extent that I withdraw from them, just as my old comrades don't slip away any more than I do from them. This is how I shift all my anger and frustration to myself.

        I am to blame for my hard luck. And, of course, it's my fault alone that my friends and acquaintances are deserting me. It's all happened because of me and no one else. All my anger is misguided and foolish. It just goes to show that I still have some lessons to take to heart. I still haven't reached the final boundary.

        I know that I'm not an ordinary friend. I call this one-way friendship. I'm very happy to have friends visit, to share with them the glories of little garden around my house and tell over and over where I got that spectacular Bird of Paradise bush or the king walnut tree with the pungent, pleasant perfume of its fruit. I enjoy discussing national and kibbutz affairs with my guests, telling tall tales of our days in the army and getting blind drunk on stories of long-past wars. But I find it difficult to repay their visits. Keeping a simple account of small gifts and exchanges of letters or phone calls, that's very hard for me.

        Yes, everything will be different now. I keep making myself a sick man's promises. When I'm up again, when I leave the hospital, when I return to the living, I vow to myself, I'll be another man, another man entirely.

        And the greater change in me will be love for my handful of friends, those who didn't abandon me but stayed at my bed during these grim weeks. If I leave my bed, return home and go back to strolling among the trees of the garden that wreathe my small house without learning this simple lesson, I'll bring with me nothing but a nasty streak.

        I'm teaching myself that I must store up the faces of the wounded, the betrayed men I found at the aid station, only for myself. That I must suppress and tell no one of their bitter voices swearing me not to forget or hold my tongue. That I must keep to myself their faint moans mingling with the wail of the wind blowing through the stones of the scorched basalt. That if I should open up and say what I saw there, and what I remember of it, and how all the memories of it have come together to torment me here in my hospital bed, I'll drive away the last of my friends, the ones who are still willing to bend over me with rapt faces and listen to the breath I gasp out in my weakened state.

        I must stop driving them away. I must find the way to draw back to me those I lost during my weeks of illness. But how will I do it? What magical spell must I unceasingly chant to bring back the friends who have left me?

Utterly exhausted, I fall back in my bed. But my lips continue to recite, names, nicknames and lost places where I used to walk with friends before my heart betrayed me.
 

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