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SCAR of PRIDE

by Elisha Porat

Translated from Hebrew by Asher Harris
 

1 .
Once, in the summer of 1946, I accompanied my father on a visit to Tel Aviv Before the trip, Father, a proud, reserved man; was beside himself. Yehuda, his best friend, had arranged a meeting with Natan, the wonderful Tel Aviv poet, and the prospect gave my father no peace. He was tense and irritable and quick to lose his temper. When he passed his hand over my smooth boy's cheek, he wasn't aware of what he was touching, and when he stroked my unruly curls, he didn't notice what he was stroking.

In the Tel Aviv street, Yehuda was already waiting for us. Father put his arm round Yehuda's shoulder and Yehuda pulled Father close to him and they were as happy as if they hadn't met for a long time. Father sat me down at the table, and in childish contentment, I leaned my elbows on the sticky oilcloth. Flies circled sluggishly above puddles of spilt coffee and in the remains of sweet lemonade. Father and Yehuda found plenty to drowned talk about so I began to look around. A rain of overripe berries dropped out of the deep shade of the ficus trees, bursting on the table and under it, and spattering stains of inky juice all around.

The numbing summer heat engulfed me. The cars racing along the street at my back, the cries of hawkers, the bustle of passers-by, the clatter of hooves as horses passed pulling their carts of kerosene or ice, all these assailed my ears like the clacking of castanets. And within the shimmering bubble of heat, the drone of the sultry street mingled with the staccato conversation of my father and Yehuda.

Of all the people who surrounded my father in the days of my childhood, Yehuda was the only one whom my father truly loved. Looking through the eyes of my childhood, misted over with the dried-up tears of memory, I can still see my father mellowing and changing - whenever Yehuda entered our house. Despite the years I still recall how the familiar layers would fall away one by one, and how a different man would emerge from the sloughed-off skin, a man I didn't know at all. Father's hands, cracked and furrowed from work in the fields, work from which he allowed himself no respite, became as soft as a gentleman's. His tanned face paled like of those wild creatures which change color according to their one surroundings. His abrupt, peremptory way of talking became gentle, uncertain. Suddenly he would turn from giving orders to asking questions. When Yehuda was around, Father would lose his decisiveness. To this day I am still amazed, still waiting to get over my wonder.

Father greeted Yehuda who had quickly stood up as we arrived. I had the impression that he saw our approach, slow and ponderous, as that of country yokels. He waited until we came right up to the table diffident before embarking on the formalities of welcome. He signaled something to the waiter and immediately a number of large glasses were set on the table along with a jug of cold water which tinkled like a bell. Father asked Yehuda for some soda-water as well and Yehuda turned to the waiter in his gentle manner, "We ordered soda-water too, didn't we?"

 The wonderful way in which Yehuda half acknowledged, half ignored my presence filled me with astonishment even in those days of innocence. It was as if with one eye he saw all of me, my whole being with all its childish elements, while the other, half closed, saw nothing but my soul, in the fullness of time, would blossom into the essential me. He would blink and stare in my direction as if he were weighing up what he saw. What that one eye surely saw was nothing but a child, not really grown up enough to sit with the adults. On the other hand, no doubt, the other eye seemed to guess at a young man who would often search his memory in an attempt to recapture the long-lost years.

So Yehuda hopped around me, yet also hovered somewhere else nearby. When he shook my hand, it was as if it wasn't a real hand of flesh and blood that he held loosely, and when he patted me on the shoulder or tweaked my nose, it was as if he were tweaking a paper doll and not the real me. Then, embarrassed, I cringed from his caress, flinched from his touch and retreated to the other end of the table. Deep inside me some tune or other sang to itself in harmony, "The kids say that your father is strong and he can knock this little Yehuda down easily." When terrified I had finally shrunk back into the furthest chair at the edge of the pavement, that childish song of vengeance was still singing in my heart, and my contempt for this milksop was clothing itself in clearer words and music. At that very moment this same Yehuda, with the absent-louder mindedness that goes with insight, turned to my father and warned him loudly, "That boy of yours had better be careful! He's too close to the street and the traffic is crazy."

But father merely waved his gentleman's hands and let them fall on the rough wooden table, on the stained oilcloth cover.

2 .
Yehuda, a small likeable chap with a genuine ability to bring kindred together, tries to make the waiting pass pleasantly. He regales my spirits futher with the name of each passerby, and the vague image I recall with difficulty from my confused memory is of him dancing about, wiping the fro his Khaki shirt, moving swiftly from chair to chair, shuttling sweat there and back around Father and throwing backward glances towards the table as if he were being scolded. Father remains haughtily, almost aggressively silent. What has he got in common with these intellectuals, skipping mollified. about in their open sandals? What are these actresses to him, prancing along the street in their skimpy dresses? What, for that matter, is Yehuda who knows each passerby by name and eagerly holds forth on the wonderful talents of them all? Father remains silent and waits in stubborn awe for this Tel Aviv poet to whom Yehuda has promised to introduce him. None of Yehuda's offerings is acceptable, neither the brilliant notions that one nor the incisive opinions of the other; neither the astonishing of new book that left Yehuda amazed by the power of its language (" The language, do you hear?") nor the obscene gestures of the British occupying troops, nor even the gut-wrenching article that pits ("pits, you the lofty moral principles of the workers' movement against understand?") the fossilized, vacillating morality of the petite bourgeoisie. And what else can I say that I haven't yet said?

But Father refuses to soften. Haughty and silent, he sits there at the table, haughty enough, as Yehuda told me years later, to destroy himself, and he tightens his hand round the heavy water glass leaving Yehuda not the smallest crack to creep through.

Later on, when memories break free from the bounds of time, I try to disentangle scenes, words and sounds from the jumble, but I find it difficult to arrange the events in any sort of sequence. If only I could at least grasp the main points. If only I could be sure that the outlines had not blurred, but even of that I am not always certain. Natan suddenly appears, actually materializing out of the street, with a buoyant, lifting step. Father stands up immediately, tipping his chair in doing so. It tilts sideways and almost falls. The water glass slides along the table-top. Father stands quite still and turns pale, paler than I ever remember. He steps foreword a little to shake hands, but Natan's left hand avoids Father's moves grasp. It is shaking uncontrollably as if his arm were not joined to his shoulder, as if he had a life of its own, as if its trembling could not be stilled. Natan is wearing Khaki trousers with a Khaki shirt worn outside to give the impression of suit. His eyes take us in at a glance, pass over the three of us and move on to rake the street. It is almost as if he has been invited to meet someone else who hasn't turned up so he is forced to wait and sit with us for a while. Really, only for a minute; and if he has consented, it only out of respect for that fine fellow, Yehuda. These yokels from is distant Kibbutzim, an all-pervading smell of brimstone clinging to them, are as excited as children in his presence. They actually force into the hand that doesn't tremble pieces of paper, extracts from earnest articles, and formless, so damp with excited sweat they're nearly colorless illegible. How tiresome is their love.

Yehuda capers around him. "Sit down, Natan. What would you like, Natan? Natan, I'd like you to meet my friend from the Kibbutz. My kindred soul, my twin-spirit who works himself to death in the hot and steamy realm of manual And this little boy is his son who has accompanied his father to the labor city. They have taken the trouble to come all this way to meet you because I promised that you would find a moment for them. They admire you poetry and wanted to meet you so much; just a short meeting, nothing like 'the man who came to dinner'!"

A pause - the flow of memories is dammed for a second. Then, the flood-gates open once again and the tide surges through. The tension breaks. We all laugh. People who have crowded round the table for a moment laugh with us. Suddenly I feel Natan's roving look rest on my face. I show my young even teeth in a smile, trying to ingratiate myself with this strange man in whose presence Father has become so pale. Over the reaches of time, from the depth of that elusive image, I seem to remember that after that the conversation went more easily. There were even smiles. Natan constantly exchanged greetings with passerby. Some approached our table, snatched a few words, put in a quick plea, shook hands, smiled at Yehuda, waved a friendly finger in the direction of Natan's gleaming forehead or shot inquiring glance at Father's heavy form.

Yehuda now would not allow the conversation to flag. He tended it with words and revived it when it suddenly languished. From time to time he darted a severe look at Father as if urging him, "Come out of your shell, man. Don't be a bumpkin. You wanted to meet this fellow, didn't you? Wasn't it because of him that you bothered to come all the way from your distant Kibbutz with the boy, who only cramps your style anyway. Don't be boring, that 'holier-than-thou' face, as if someone had forced you to descend from your Olympian heights to consort with untouchable." from Well, that's how Natan was.

The sleeves forever frayed at the elbows, the pullover unraveling, the compulsive untidiness. How thin he is close up. What fire flashes again and again from the depth of his eyes. Even in the white light of summer noon in Tel Aviv, his forehead shines, while from his wizened throat comes the cry of a whole people. Father sits drawn into himself, as if remembering the words he wrote in our Kibbutz broad sheet, long ago, when Natan's new poems had first appeared. Father had been like possessed, stalking in his room like a caged tiger. He was unable to sleep because of what he called "an inner quaking". The poems had constricted his heart. Or maybe that's not exactly how it was. Maybe I am and getting mixed up between my memories and what Father really wrote. The beautiful girl who used to recite law, thrilling voice read Father's article together with the poems at one of our Friday evening meetings. Sitting there in the large brightly-lit dining room, I felt a childish pride swelling within me. Such a proud reserved man; I felt that I was one with him, come what may. I would stand by him, and the two of us, shoulder to shoulder, would move forward together against the whole world. Suddenly a slightly hoarse voice breaks in, "Take care, boy! Don't lean so far on Natan's back. You're going to fall right into the path of the traffic."

 But Father was sunk deep in a vision he saw in his water glass and didn't hear what Natan had just said. He didn't notice the danger so close behind me and didn't even raise his head to look in my direction.

3.
Drunk or not, Natan was now in full spate. He supported his trembling left hand with his right. His glance darted from Yehuda to Father and back to the street, where it followed the young Jewish soldiers passing by, and then returned to us. The man might have had two faces. All the while, a dwarf by comparison, was trying in awed revenge to get a word to Yehuda, edgeways. Of course, it wasn't long before the subject of morality was forcibly dragged in, where it became confused with the state of the worker's movement. And the things Natan said when he was drunk! Even the "God of the elephants" was invoked to buttress his arguments. Truncated sentences trembled from his lips like the trembling of his hand. He would type his outpourings with his right hand while his treacheries left would shake until at last it would be cast to aside like some unless twitch object discarded on a rubbish-heap.

In this business of poetry Father was a fervent but taciturn admirer. Moreover, he respected Natan as he respected no other man. But when it came a question of the labor movement or the murder of the Jewish writers in  Russia or morality in general or the issue known as "The music of the mortars", Father had pronounced and trenchant opinions of his own. So while pallor heightened, signs began to appear of that anger, that tempestuous fury that both Yehuda and I feared. Father's rage was finally ignited over nothing. He was on his feet, pacing up and down, head down as if about to butt, his tongue dry with anger. Yehuda was in such a state that he began to call upon the god of elephants to arise and take pity on them.

 Had Mother been with us, she would probably have thrown herself at his feet, clung to the legs of the table and cried to them from the floor, " I'm moving until you two make it up." But Mother wasn't there and Yehuda, now squeezed between the two of them, didn't know which way to turn.

"OH! Mountain strikes mountain, peak clashes against peak." There was Yehuda, dancing around them, pulling at their sleeves, trying to calm them down. The table shook. Chairs went flying. Curious passerby began to gather and Yehuda suddenly stopped hopping about, folded his arms and, grinning in embarrassment, said to me, "Two toreros tearing at each other. Two bulls taking each other on. Ah, well, there's a time and place for everything. Toreador and bull butting each other!"

When Natan was drunk he could say some very cruel things. "You had better go on, you lot, all of you, go straight to the youngsters. I call on our unspoiled youth, the ones you haven't yet managed to ruin. Let them turn their backs on you, I say. Or go appeal to the children, not yet stained by sin, as someone once did, long ago and far away. What do you mean by 'the music of the mortars', eh? What you know of the pen that was smashed in Moscow? Words you aren't capable of understanding! All you can do is chew around and then spew them out to defile the well you drink from!"

Father was in a ferment. I couldn't take my eyes off him. I understood the smallest movement of his face, the merest clenching of his fists. He was with fury. Never in all my life had I seen him so agitated. The wrecked table got in his way and he pushed it aside with a violent gesture. Roughly he kicked the chair backwards. The glass slid along the table and Yehuda was almost crushed under Father's great hand. Suddenly the two of them advanced towards me, boxing me in at the end of the table. In the heat of the argument, the shouted exchanges, the faces grimacing in sweaty rage, I sat there at the apex of a converging triangle. I could smell their clothes. I could see the sweat seeping through their Khaki shirts. Then, without realizing it, I felt an
overwhelming urge to press myself to my father. I leaned backwards slowly, unshackled by earthly laws of weight and shoulder. Gravity!

The Tel Aviv poet in his drunken anger hurled at Father the accusation that the worst of them all, the absolute bottom of the barrel, the amateur journalists in remote Kibbutzim whose writings reeked of brimstone and who did more harm with their narrow-mindedness than fools did with their simple-mindedness. Father was stunned; a furrow of pain appeared on his forehead and he began to writhe like a wounded animal. Yehuda, charming little Yehuda, that the whole encounter was collapsing in chaos. Suddenly time stopped and froze. In a drunken haze, Natan cried out "The boy! He's going over! Look out! Oh, right under the cars!"

As if caught in a globe of light, within a bubble of time held still for a short moment, I see Yehuda running round the table and crying to Father, "Oh, the boy! Oh, my god! He's fallen."

The noise of a car swamped over me and I was engulfed by a great darkness. An overwhelming sense of distress that I hadn't risen to stand by my father, shoulder to shoulder, clutched at my heart. Afterwards an enveloping silence fell and I saw hurrying flecks of white, specks of brightness, flowing blood, for I had fallen backwards right under the wheels of a car.

4.
Two crossed stitches, clearly visible on my cheek today, are the only ones left. If you look closely though, you will see faint signs of the others. If you were to draw a line joining all the stitches, you would trace a diagonal scar running the length of my right cheek from the chin to a light path between temple and eye. Whenever I am carried away by a fit of temper, the scar takes on its original redness. If I run my finger along it to try and soothe the smarting, I can see once more three heads bending over. And yet I find it hard to remember. Who exactly was leaning over me? Who me. was talking? How did the quarrel end? And who was it who whispered above my bandaged face, "This red scar had such a cruel birth."

Then there were the who teased in the Kibbutz children's house, "Scar face! scar face!" That reserved man, my father, standing by me when I came to. And the flickering memories of the hospital.

Whenever I make a serious effort to piece together the shards of memory, I am confronted by a jumbled mass of veiled moments, time snatched away, never to return. What happened when I fell? Was I run over and was that how I acquired this scar of pride? And then, after I had been extricated from between the cars and carried off in my father's arms, and after Yehuda had summoned help, and after Natan had stood alone in the confusion wondering why he had argued so wickedly in the presence of a child and the very edge of a menacing street; after all this and everything else that followed, I had to undergo the ordeal of facing my mother's searching gaze, still answering all her questions and trying to restore some kind of order to my memory of the muddled events.

 Lying there convalescing in my white bed, I had go to over and over the whole affair from very beginning. How could I have deserted my father in the cruel argument with Natan? What had happened to those vows about "Shoulder to shoulder?" and "Father and me against the whole world"? and "We shall never be defeated if we stand together"? How is it that they came to nothing and I kept none of them? What about that nasty habit my mother was always scolding me for, of tilting my chair backwards till you could hear the crack of rusty screw and split wood?

How could I have left Father complaining alone between Yehuda prancing about and Natan looking way beyond him? Why I jump to the front of the table, mountain clashing with mountain, didn't toreador butting against bull? Then when I feel the inner compulsion to pour out my words, I sit up straight in bed, the white bedclothes slide off me and the scar that cuts diagonally across my face leaps out. Against my pure father I set that drunken poet. I have no weapon to attack him with - only my beating heart, words that will stay with me all my life, memories that will never fade. The sight of my father standing downcast in the face of the gross drunken attacks of the Tel Aviv poet fills me with a depressing sense of helplessness at not being able to do anything for him, and leaves a weight my heart over the long years. The pain slices through my cheek and catches my heart because I did not do what I should have done such as biting through his Khaki trousers like a puppy gone berserk. Don't little ones have their own ways of fighting: teeth, weak finger-nails, childish screams, something? Sitting there in bed I read again those simple artless words that Father had written in our modest Kibbutz paper. I pored over them for a long time. They contained a kind of sad beauty that was not easy to understand. Was it really so strange that Natan, hasty, haunted by drink, did not have the eye to perceive nor the heart to care for them?

Through the shimmering bubbles of time I go over the few lines again. "The throat of a whole people; the cut throat of a whole people bleeds from the throat of the poet. Drops of anguish and blood." "Mountain against mountain!" Yehuda's voice roars in my ears. A sea of sparks flies up; the smell of scorching. The memory of those three sitting round a cafe table in that Tel Aviv street in the summer of the year one thousand nine hundred and forty-six, in the shade of those dark ficus tree, is branded into me for all the days of my life, and his memory goes with me as I am gathered up from between the screaming brakes and burning tyres, from the melting asphalt of the steaming mid-day street.

 So when father, as always, unconsciously passes his large hand over my healed-up scar of pride, and I, as always, take countless oaths of loyalty, time stands still in its cycle and I look within, deep within its secret depth that have long since faded away, and through my childhood eyes I see how this reserved man who may not even have wanted to meet that wonderful poet Natan, turns pale with pride. On the table between them pride lies dishonored, while the heart of a child bleeds. Then at the far end of the table, at the menacing edge of the street, the little boy defies the laws of physics. Leaning back on the chair until the bolts snap, he does the only remaining thing to do and throws himself into the path of the traffic.

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