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My First Story | Poem


by Elisha Porat

Translated from Hebrew by Asher Harris

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

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

The numbing summer heat engulfed me. The cars racing along the streetat my back, the cries of hawkers, the bustle of passers-by, the clatterof hooves as horses passed pulling their carts of kerosene or ice, allthese assailed my ears like the clacking of castanets. And within the shimmeringbubble of heat, the drone of the sultry street mingled with the staccatoconversation 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 theeyes of my childhood, misted over with the dried-up tears of memory, Ican still see my father mellowing and changing - whenever Yehuda enteredour house. Despite the years I still recall how the familiar layers wouldfall away one by one, and how a different man would emerge from the sloughed-offskin, a man I didn't know at all. Father's hands, cracked and furrowedfrom 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 wildcreatures which change color according to their one surroundings. His abrupt,peremptory way of talking became gentle, uncertain. Suddenly he would turnfrom giving orders to asking questions. When Yehuda was around, Fatherwould lose his decisiveness. To this day I am still amazed, still waitingto get over my wonder.

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

 The wonderful way in which Yehuda half acknowledged, half ignoredmy 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 itschildish elements, while the other, half closed, saw nothing but my soul,in the fullness of time, would blossom into the essential me. He wouldblink 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 grownup enough to sit with the adults. On the other hand, no doubt, the othereye seemed to guess at a young man who would often search his memory inan 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 andblood that he held loosely, and when he patted me on the shoulder or tweakedmy 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 andretreated to the other end of the table. Deep inside me some tune or othersang to itself in harmony, "The kids say that your father is strong andhe can knock this little Yehuda down easily." When terrified I had finallyshrunk back into the furthest chair at the edge of the pavement, that childishsong of vengeance was still singing in my heart, and my contempt for thismilksop was clothing itself in clearer words and music. At that very momentthis same Yehuda, with the absent-louder mindedness that goes with insight,turned to my father and warned him loudly, "That boy of yours had betterbe 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 therough wooden table, on the stained oilcloth cover.

2 .
Yehuda, a small likeable chap with a genuine ability to bring kindredtogether, tries to make the waiting pass pleasantly. He regales my spiritsfuther with the name of each passerby, and the vague image I recall withdifficulty from my confused memory is of him dancing about, wiping thefro his Khaki shirt, moving swiftly from chair to chair, shuttling sweatthere and back around Father and throwing backward glances towards thetable as if he were being scolded. Father remains haughtily, almost aggressivelysilent. What has he got in common with these intellectuals, skipping mollified.about in their open sandals? What are these actresses to him, prancingalong the street in their skimpy dresses? What, for that matter, is Yehudawho knows each passerby by name and eagerly holds forth on the wonderfultalents of them all? Father remains silent and waits in stubborn awe forthis Tel Aviv poet to whom Yehuda has promised to introduce him. None ofYehuda's offerings is acceptable, neither the brilliant notions that onenor the incisive opinions of the other; neither the astonishing of newbook 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 moralprinciples of the workers' movement against understand?") the fossilized,vacillating morality of the petite bourgeoisie. And what else can I saythat I haven't yet said?

But Father refuses to soften. Haughty and silent, he sits there at thetable, haughty enough, as Yehuda told me years later, to destroy himself,and he tightens his hand round the heavy water glass leaving Yehuda notthe smallest crack to creep through.

Later on, when memories break free from the bounds of time, I try todisentangle scenes, words and sounds from the jumble, but I find it difficultto arrange the events in any sort of sequence. If only I could at leastgrasp the main points. If only I could be sure that the outlines had notblurred, 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 sidewaysand almost falls. The water glass slides along the table-top. Father standsquite still and turns pale, paler than I ever remember. He steps foreworda 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 givethe impression of suit. His eyes take us in at a glance, pass over thethree of us and move on to rake the street. It is almost as if he has beeninvited to meet someone else who hasn't turned up so he is forced to waitand 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 fromis distant Kibbutzim, an all-pervading smell of brimstone clinging to them,are as excited as children in his presence. They actually force into thehand 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 ofmanual And this little boy is his son who has accompanied his father tothe labor city. They have taken the trouble to come all this way to meetyou because I promised that you would find a moment for them. They admireyou poetry and wanted to meet you so much; just a short meeting, nothinglike 'the man who came to dinner'!"

A pause - the flow of memories is dammed for a second. Then, the flood-gatesopen once again and the tide surges through. The tension breaks. We alllaugh. People who have crowded round the table for a moment laugh withus. Suddenly I feel Natan's roving look rest on my face. I show my youngeven teeth in a smile, trying to ingratiate myself with this strange manin 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 thatthe conversation went more easily. There were even smiles. Natan constantlyexchanged greetings with passerby. Some approached our table, snatcheda few words, put in a quick plea, shook hands, smiled at Yehuda, waveda friendly finger in the direction of Natan's gleaming forehead or shotinquiring glance at Father's heavy form.

Yehuda now would not allow the conversation to flag. He tended it withwords and revived it when it suddenly languished. From time to time hedarted 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'tit because of him that you bothered to come all the way from your distantKibbutz 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 fromyour Olympian heights to consort with untouchable." from Well, that's howNatan was.

The sleeves forever frayed at the elbows, the pullover unraveling, thecompulsive untidiness. How thin he is close up. What fire flashes againand again from the depth of his eyes. Even in the white light of summernoon in Tel Aviv, his forehead shines, while from his wizened throat comesthe cry of a whole people. Father sits drawn into himself, as if rememberingthe words he wrote in our Kibbutz broad sheet, long ago, when Natan's newpoems had first appeared. Father had been like possessed, stalking in hisroom 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'snot exactly how it was. Maybe I am and getting mixed up between my memoriesand what Father really wrote. The beautiful girl who used to recite law,thrilling voice read Father's article together with the poems at one ofour Friday evening meetings. Sitting there in the large brightly-lit diningroom, I felt a childish pride swelling within me. Such a proud reservedman; 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 againstthe 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 intothe path of the traffic."

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

Drunk or not, Natan was now in full spate. He supported his tremblingleft hand with his right. His glance darted from Yehuda to Father and backto 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 wasforcibly dragged in, where it became confused with the state of the worker'smovement. And the things Natan said when he was drunk! Even the "God ofthe elephants" was invoked to buttress his arguments. Truncated sentencestrembled from his lips like the trembling of his hand. He would type hisoutpourings with his right hand while his treacheries left would shakeuntil at last it would be cast to aside like some unless twitch objectdiscarded 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 itcame a question of the labor movement or the murder of the Jewish writersin  Russia or morality in general or the issue known as "The musicof the mortars", Father had pronounced and trenchant opinions of his own.So while pallor heightened, signs began to appear of that anger, that tempestuousfury that both Yehuda and I feared. Father's rage was finally ignited overnothing. He was on his feet, pacing up and down, head down as if aboutto butt, his tongue dry with anger. Yehuda was in such a state that hebegan to call upon the god of elephants to arise and take pity on them.

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

"OH! Mountain strikes mountain, peak clashes against peak." There wasYehuda, dancing around them, pulling at their sleeves, trying to calm themdown. The table shook. Chairs went flying. Curious passerby began to gatherand Yehuda suddenly stopped hopping about, folded his arms and, grinningin embarrassment, said to me, "Two toreros tearing at each other. Two bullstaking 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 bettergo on, you lot, all of you, go straight to the youngsters. I call on ourunspoiled youth, the ones you haven't yet managed to ruin. Let them turntheir backs on you, I say. Or go appeal to the children, not yet stainedby 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 smashedin Moscow? Words you aren't capable of understanding! All you can do ischew 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 understoodthe smallest movement of his face, the merest clenching of his fists. Hewas with fury. Never in all my life had I seen him so agitated. The wreckedtable got in his way and he pushed it aside with a violent gesture. Roughlyhe kicked the chair backwards. The glass slid along the table and Yehudawas almost crushed under Father's great hand. Suddenly the two of themadvanced towards me, boxing me in at the end of the table. In the heatof 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, withoutrealizing it, I felt an
overwhelming urge to press myself to my father. I leaned backwardsslowly, unshackled by earthly laws of weight and shoulder. Gravity!

The Tel Aviv poet in his drunken anger hurled at Father the accusationthat the worst of them all, the absolute bottom of the barrel, the amateurjournalists in remote Kibbutzim whose writings reeked of brimstone andwho did more harm with their narrow-mindedness than fools did with theirsimple-mindedness. Father was stunned; a furrow of pain appeared on hisforehead and he began to writhe like a wounded animal. Yehuda, charminglittle Yehuda, that the whole encounter was collapsing in chaos. Suddenlytime stopped and froze. In a drunken haze, Natan cried out "The boy! He'sgoing over! Look out! Oh, right under the cars!"

As if caught in a globe of light, within a bubble of time held stillfor a short moment, I see Yehuda running round the table and crying toFather, "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 silencefell and I saw hurrying flecks of white, specks of brightness, flowingblood, for I had fallen backwards right under the wheels of a car.

Two crossed stitches, clearly visible on my cheek today, are the onlyones left. If you look closely though, you will see faint signs of theothers. If you were to draw a line joining all the stitches, you wouldtrace a diagonal scar running the length of my right cheek from the chinto a light path between temple and eye. Whenever I am carried away by afit of temper, the scar takes on its original redness. If I run my fingeralong it to try and soothe the smarting, I can see once more three headsbending over. And yet I find it hard to remember. Who exactly was leaningover me? Who me. was talking? How did the quarrel end? And who was it whowhispered above my bandaged face, "This red scar had such a cruel birth."

Then there were the who teased in the Kibbutz children's house, "Scarface! scar face!" That reserved man, my father, standing by me when I cameto. 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 thathow I acquired this scar of pride? And then, after I had been extricatedfrom between the cars and carried off in my father's arms, and after Yehudahad summoned help, and after Natan had stood alone in the confusion wonderingwhy he had argued so wickedly in the presence of a child and the very edgeof a menacing street; after all this and everything else that followed,I had to undergo the ordeal of facing my mother's searching gaze, stillanswering all her questions and trying to restore some kind of order tomy memory of the muddled events.

 Lying there convalescing in my white bed, I had go to over andover the whole affair from very beginning. How could I have deserted myfather in the cruel argument with Natan? What had happened to those vowsabout "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 theycame to nothing and I kept none of them? What about that nasty habit mymother was always scolding me for, of tilting my chair backwards till youcould hear the crack of rusty screw and split wood?

How could I have left Father complaining alone between Yehuda prancingabout and Natan looking way beyond him? Why I jump to the front of thetable, mountain clashing with mountain, didn't toreador butting againstbull? Then when I feel the inner compulsion to pour out my words, I situp straight in bed, the white bedclothes slide off me and the scar thatcuts diagonally across my face leaps out. Against my pure father I setthat drunken poet. I have no weapon to attack him with - only my beatingheart, words that will stay with me all my life, memories that will neverfade. The sight of my father standing downcast in the face of the grossdrunken attacks of the Tel Aviv poet fills me with a depressing sense ofhelplessness at not being able to do anything for him, and leaves a weightmy heart over the long years. The pain slices through my cheek and catchesmy heart because I did not do what I should have done such as biting throughhis Khaki trousers like a puppy gone berserk. Don't little ones have theirown ways of fighting: teeth, weak finger-nails, childish screams, something?Sitting there in bed I read again those simple artless words that Fatherhad 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. Wasit really so strange that Natan, hasty, haunted by drink, did not havethe 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 bleedsfrom the throat of the poet. Drops of anguish and blood." "Mountain againstmountain!" Yehuda's voice roars in my ears. A sea of sparks flies up; thesmell of scorching. The memory of those three sitting round a cafe tablein that Tel Aviv street in the summer of the year one thousand nine hundredand forty-six, in the shade of those dark ficus tree, is branded into mefor all the days of my life, and his memory goes with me as I am gatheredup from between the screaming brakes and burning tyres, from the meltingasphalt of the steaming mid-day street.

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

(C) All Rights Reserved.

toElisha   to Moongate

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