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From one of Israel's most acclaimed writers comes a novel of extraordinary power about family lifethe greatest human dramaand the cost of war. Ora, a middle-aged Israeli mother, is on the verge of celebrating her son Ofer's release from army service when he returns to the front for a major offensive. In a fit of preemptive grief and magical thinking, she sets out for a hike in the Galilee, leaving no forwarding information for the "notifiers" who might darken her door with the worst possible news. Recently estranged from her husband, Ilan, she drags along an unlikely companion: their former best friend and her former lover Avram, once a brilliant artistic spirit. Avram served in the army alongside Ilan when they were young, but their lives were forever changed one weekend when the two jokingly had Ora draw lots to see which of them would get the few days' leave being offered by their commandera chance act that sent Avram into Egpyt and the Yom Kippur War, where he was brutally tortured as POW. In the aftermath, a virtual hermit, he refused to keep in touch with the family and has never met the boy. Now, as Ora and Avram sleep out in the hills, ford rivers, and cross valleys, avoiding all news from the front, she gives him the gift of Ofer, word by word; she supplies the whole story of her motherhood, a retelling that keeps Ofer very much alive for Ora and for the reader, and opens Avram to human bonds undreamed of in his broken world. Their walk has a "war and peace" rhythm, as their conversation places the most hideous trials of war next to the joys and anguish of raising children. Never have we seen so clearly the reality and surreality of daily life in Israel, the currents of ambivalence about war within one household, and the burdens that fall on each generation anew. Grossman's rich imagining of a family in love and crisis makes for one of the great antiwar novels of our time. From the Hardcover edition.
Prologue, 1967 HEY, GIRL,quiet!
Who is that?
Be quiet! You woke everyone up!
But I was holding her
On the rock, we were sitting together
What rock are you talking about? Let us sleep
Then she just fell
All this shouting and singing
But I was asleep
And you were shouting!
She just let go of my hand and fell
Stop it, go to sleep
Turn on a light
Are you crazy? They’ll kill us if we do that
I was singing?
Singing, shouting, everything. Now be quiet
What was I singing?
What were you singing?!
In my sleep, what was I singing?
I’m supposed to know what you were singing? A bunch of shouts.
That’s what you were singing. What was I singing, she wants to know . . .
You don’t remember the song?
Look, are you nuts? I’m barely alive
But who are you?
You’re in isolation, too?
Gotta get back
Don’t go . . . Did you leave? Wait, hello . . . Gone . . . But what was I singing? ANDthe next night he woke her up again, angry at her again for singing at the top of her lungs and waking up the whole hospital, and she begged him to try to remember if it was the same song from the night before. She was desperate to know, because of her dream, which kept getting dreamed almost every night during those years. An utterly white dream. Everything in it was white, the streets and the houses and the trees and the cats and dogs and the rock at the edge of the cliff. And Ada, her redheaded friend, was also entirely white, without a drop of blood in her face or body. Without a drop of color in her hair. But he couldn’t remember which song it was this time, either. His whole body was shuddering, and she shuddered back at him from her bed. We’re like a pair of castanets, he said, and to her surprise, she burst out with bright laughter that tickled him inside. He had used up all his strength on the journey from his room to hers, thirty-five steps, resting after each one, holding on to walls, doorframes, empty food carts. Now he flopped onto the sticky linoleum floor in her doorway. For several minutes they both breathed heavily. He wanted to make her laugh again but he could no longer speak, and then he must have fallen asleep, until her voice woke him.
Tell me something
What? Who is it?
You . . .
Tell me, am I alone in this room?
How should I know?
Are you, like, shivering?
How high is yours?
It was forty this evening
Mine was forty point three. When do you die?
No, no, you still have time
Don’t go, I’m scared
Do you hear?
How quiet it is suddenly?
Were there booms before?
I keep sleeping, and all of a sudden it’s nighttime again
’Cause there’s a blackout
I think they’re winning
They’ve occupied Tel Aviv
What are you . . . who told you that?
I don’t know. Maybe I heard it
You dreamed it
No, they said it here, someone, before, I heard voices
It’s from the fever. Nightmares. I have them, too
My dream . . . I was with my friend
Maybe you know
Which direction I came from
I don’t know anything here
How long for you?
Me, four days. Maybe a week
Wait, where’s the nurse?
At night she’s in Internal A. She’s an Arab
How do you know?
You can hear it when she talks
My mouth, my whole face
But . . . where is everybody?
They’re not taking us to the bomb shelter
So we don’t infect them
Wait, so it’s just us—
And the nurse
If you could sing it for me
If it was the other way around, I would sing to you
Gotta get back
Where, where, to lie with my forefathers, to bring me down with sorrow to the grave, that’s where
What? What was that? Wait, do I know you? Hey, come back ANDthe next night, too, before midnight, he came to stand in her doorway and scolded her again and complained that she was singing in her sleep, waking him and the whole world, and she smiled to herself and asked if his room was really that far, and that was when he realized, from her voice, that she wasn’t where she had been the night before and the night before that.
Because now I’msitting,she explained. He asked cautiously, But why are you sitting? Because I couldn’t sleep, she said. And I wasn’t singing. I was sitting here quietly waiting for you.
They both thought it was getting even darker. A new wave of heat, which may have had nothing to do with her illness, climbed up from Ora’s toes and sparked red spots on her neck and face. It’s a good thing it’s dark, she thought, and held her loose pajama collar up to her neck. Finally, from the doorway, he cleared his throat softly and said, Well, I have to get back. But why? she asked. He said he urgently had to tar and feather himself. She didn’t get it, but then she got it and laughed deeply. Come on, dummy, enough with your act, I put a chair out for you next to me.
He felt along the doorway, metal cabinets, and beds, until he stopped way off, leaned his arms on an empty bed, and panted loudly. I’m here, he groaned. Come closer to me, she said. Wait, let me catch my breath. The darkness filled her with courage and she said in a loud voice, in her voice of health, of beaches and paddleball and swimming out to the rafts on Quiet Beach, What are you afraid of? I don’t bite. He mumbled, Okay, okay, I get it, I’m barely alive. His grumbling tone and the heavy way he dragged his feet touched her. We’re kind of like an elderly couple, she thought.
One of these beds just decided to . . . Fuck! So, have you heard of the Law of Malicious—
What did you say?
The Law of Malicious Furniture—heard of it?
Are you coming or not?
The trembling wouldn’t stop, and sometimes it turned into long shivers, and when they talked their speech was choppy, and they often had to wait for a pause in the trembling, a brief calming of the face and mouth muscles, and then they would quickly spit out the words in high, tense voices, and the stammering crushed the sentences in their mouths. How-old-are-you? Six-teen-and-you? And-a-quar-ter. I-have-jaun-dice, how-a-bout-you? Me? he said. I-think-it’s-an-in-fec-tion-of-the-o-va-ries.
Silence. He shuddered and breathed heavily. By-the-way-that-was-a-joke, he said. Not funny, she said. He groaned: I tried to make her laugh, but her sense of humor is too— She perked up and asked who he was talking to. He replied, To my joke writer, I guess I’ll have to fire him. If you don’t come over here and sit down right now, I’ll start singing, she threatened. He shivered and laughed. His laughter was as screechy as a donkey’s bray, a self-sustaining laughter, and she secretly gulped it down like medicine, like a prize.
He laughed so hard at her stupid little joke that she barely resisted telling him that lately she wasn’t good at making people roll around with laughter the way she used to. “When it comes to humor, she’s not much of a jester,” they sang about her at the Purim party this year. And it wasn’t just a minor shortcoming. For her it was crippling, a new defect that could grow bigger and more complicated. And she sensed that it was somehow related to some other qualities that were vanishing in recent years. Intuition, for example. How could a trait like that disappear so abruptly? Or the knack for saying the right thing at the right time. She had had it once, and now it was gone. Or even just wittiness. She used to be really sharp. The sparks just flew out of her. (Although, she consoled herself, it was a Purim song, and maybe they just couldn’t come up with a better rhyme for “Esther.”) Or her sense of love, she thought. Maybe that was part of her deterioration—her losing the capacity to really love someone, to burn with love, like the girls talked about, like in the movies. She felt a pang for Asher Feinblatt, her friend who went to the military boarding school, who was now a soldier, who had told her on the steps between Pevsner Street and Yosef Street that she was his soul mate, but who hadn’t touched her that time, either. Never once in two years had he put a hand or a finger on her, and maybe that never-touched-her also had something to do with it, and deep in her heart she felt that everything was somehow connected, and that things would grow clearer all the time, and she would keep discovering more little pieces of whatever awaited her.
For a moment she could see herself at fifty, tall and thin and withered, a scentless flower taking long, quick steps, her head bowed, a wide-brimmed straw hat hiding her face. The boy with the donkey laugh kept feeling his way toward her, getting closer and then farther away—it was as if he were doing it on purpose, she realized, like this was a kind of game for him—and he giggled and made fun of his own clumsiness and floated around the room in circles, and every so often he asked her to say something so he’d know which direction she was in: Like a lighthouse, he explained, but with sound. Smart-ass, she thought. He finally reached her bed and felt around and found the chair she had put out, and collapsed on it and breathed heavily like an old man. She could smell the sweat of his illness, and she pulled off one of her blankets and gave it to him and he wrapped it around himself and said nothing. They were both exhausted, and each of them shivered and moaned.
Still, she said later from under her blanket, your voice sounds familiar. Where are you from? Jerusalem, he said. I’m from Haifa, she said, accentuating slightly. They brought me here in an ambulance from Rambam Hospital, because of the complications. I have those too, he laughed, my whole life is complications. They sat quietly. He scratched his stomach and chest and grumbled, and she grumbled, too. That’s the worse thing about it, isn’t it? she said. She also scratched herself, with all ten fingernails. Sometimes I’m dying to peel all my skin off, just to make it stop. Every time she started talking, he could hear the soft sticky sound of her lips parting, and the tips of his fingers and toes throbbed.
Ora said, The ambulance driver said that at a time like this they need the ambulances for more important things.
Have you noticed that everyone here is angry at us? As if we purposely. . .
Because we’re the last ones left from the plague.
They sent home anyone who was feeling even a little bit better. Especially soldiers. Wham-bam, they kicked them right back to the army so they could make it in time for the war.
So there’s really going to be a war?
Are you kidding? There’s been a war for at least two days.
When did it start? she asked in a whisper.
Day before yesterday, I think. And I told you that already, yesterday or the day before, I can’t remember, the days get mixed up.
That’s right, you did say . . . Ora was dumbstruck. Clots of strange and terrifying dreams drifted through her.
How could you not hear? he murmured. There are sirens and artillery all the time, and I heard helicopters landing. There are probably a million casualties by now.
But what’s going on?
I don’t know, and there’s no one to talk to here. They have no patience for us.
Then who’s taking care of us?
Right now there’s just that thin little Arab woman, the one who cries. Have you heard her?
That’s a person crying? Ora was stunned. I thought it was an animal wailing. Are you sure?
It’s a person, for sure.
But how come I haven’t seen her?
She kind of comes and goes. She does the tests and leaves your medicine and food on a tray. It’s just her now, day and night. He sucked in his cheeks and said thoughtfully, It’s funny that the only person they left us with is an Arab, isn’t it? They probably don’t let Arabs treat the wounded.
But why does she cry? What happened to her?
How should I know?
Ora sat up straight and her body hardened, and she said coldly, quietly, They’ve occupied Tel Aviv, I’m telling you. Nasser and Hussein are already sipping coffee at a café on Dizengoff Street.
Where did you come up with that? He sounded frightened.
I heard it last night, or today, I’m almost positive, maybe it was on her radio, I heard it, they’ve occupied Beersheba and Ashkelon and Tel Aviv.
No, no, that can’t be. Maybe it’s the fever, it’s because of your fever, ’cause there’s no way! You’re crazy, there’s no way they’ll win.
There is, there is, she mumbled to herself, and thought, What do you even know about what could or couldn’t happen.