Behold, days are coming, says the Lord, when the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed … And I will bring back the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them; they shall also make gardens, and eat their fruit. (Amos 9:13–14)
He knew her, she lived past the sands, in the part of Rassco where you heard German and the Philharmonic when the windows were open. He sometimes went to play soccer on the street there when he needed to get away from home. Her house, one of the tiny two-room cubicles that made up the neighborhood, had a small garden that looked as if she went out every morning to straighten and polish each leaf and petal. He’d often see her sitting on her front stoop with one or another lady friend, both in high heels, in long sleeves even on the hottest days of the summer. Sometimes she would have brushes in hand and an easel in front of her, painting scenes of a city that looked nothing like Holon.
Once he passed by and she wasn’t outside and he felt so disappointed that he threw a stone at her window and then hid to see if she would come out. When she did, a frown on her face, he felt so ashamed of himself that he avoided passing her house for the next month.
She had been on the early train to Jerusalem and here she was again, a straw hat with a flower over her bobbed blonde hair. The train was crowded and hot but he’d manage to squeeze through to get a window seat. She was already on the aisle. In the morning she had sat down right next to him, fanning herself with a twice-folded copy of Ha’aretz. When she looked at him he was afraid she knew that he had thrown the stone, but she just smiled and asked his name and age in a throaty Ashkenazi kind of voice and then said that her name was Alma and that it was very brave for a boy of eleven to take the train to Jerusalem by himself and was someone meeting him at the station in Jerusalem. He told her that his name was Amos and that his father had sent him to bring his mother home before the war began.
Now she asked him where his mother was, but he didn’t answer, just looked out the window and hoped she would take the newspaper out of her big leather bag. He saw her splotched reflection in the grimy pane. She waited for an answer. The train rolled through Beit Safafa, Israel on the right, the Arabs on the left. It entered the forest. Instead of the newspaper, she took out three pencils and a large book. In the reflection, he saw her leaf slowly through scribbles until she came to a white page. She looked around at the other passengers, sitting in the seats and in the aisle and standing, and began to draw. He glanced out of the corner of his eye and saw faces, real ones and on the page.
He was the oldest, that is the oldest of his mother’s children, but not his father’s, who had had a different wife before, who died. There were older brothers and sisters but they were all married and none of them lived in the shantytown next to Holon’s Samaritan settlement where a lot of Iraqis like them had been dumped when they came after independence. He’d been frying eggs and cutting cucumbers for supper for his three little brothers and sisters and hadn’t had time, after doing his homework, to wash the floor or fold the laundry. His father came in, sweaty and tired from a long day at the stand in the market, and looked around the house. He muttered something in Arabic and sighed. He patted the smaller children on the head, put his hand on Amosh’s shoulder, and said, this can’t go on. Tomorrow you take the first train to Jerusalem and bring your mother home.
She switched pencils and he quickly glanced at her page. She smiled. He looked away.
So he woke up the little ones half an hour earlier than usual, singing “Nasser’s waiting now for Rabin ai yai yai, Nasser’s waiting now for Rabin, ai yai yai,” just as his father was leaving for the market, and gave them tea all tea and sandwiches and walked them to school and left them in the yard there with a few other early risers and took the bus to the train station in Tel Aviv.
He had said too much. Family matters should stay inside the family, his father always told him. There should be no third parties.
He imagined his mother in the room with the small window where his grandmother lived. His grandmother, his mother insisted, could barely walk and needed someone to shop, clean, and cook for her. So his mother took the train to Jerusalem once a month, which then became once a week, and now she had been there for three weeks straight and had sent word that she could not leave.
Because you are the oldest I can tell you this, I have to tell you this, his father had said last night, after the little ones were asleep on their cots in the living room. It’s my fault. I made a mistake. That is, I did not make a mistake. Not a mistake because I have you and your brother and sisters. But it was not fair to your mother, and I love her, but she … You see, my first wife died in Baghdad and left me with five children in school. My sister Katy helped at first but then she told me that I had to remarry so that the children would have a mother and so I would have someone to keep the house. I had a store in the bazaar then, I sold fabric, you know about that, I did well. Preferably a young wife, Katy said, a strong and energetic one. She asked around. One day she told me to come to her house that evening, she’d send her oldest to be with the children. Your mother was there with her mother. Her father had died two years before. She was seventeen and very quiet. I was thirty-two and, what can I say, I still had an eye for a beautiful woman. No money in the family, Katy whispered to me, but that’s not what you need. Her mother can’t keep her. She followed my eye and smiled. You like her, she said. That’s good.
“You have a fine face,” she suddenly said to him. He turned toward her in surprise, and she nodded, as if confirming her hunch. He turned back to the window. She chose a different pencil and began to draw in the bottom right corner of her page, below her sketch of the crowd around them. His face, he saw through the soot and dust on the window.
He stared out, knowing that she was looking at him, waiting patiently. He traced out a head—a circle, dots for eyes, half-hearts for ears, in the dust on the pane.
“Would you like a pencil and paper?”
His father told him that his young new wife did everything that was expected. She cleaned and cooked and bore him children. When, that terrible night, they had to pack up what little they could, abandon business and home, and set off for Israel, she did not scream or weep or curse like other women. Efficiently, quietly, intensely, she chose the essentials, dressed the children, and stood by the door.
I was terribly fond of her but did not tell her that, his father said. It was all so clear and obvious then, for a girl to marry so young, for an orphan to be grateful that an older man put a roof over her head and provided for her. Only after they arrived, when they lived first in a tent in the mud on this very spot in the sands, then when he built the house and, to feed them all, he had to work as a hawker selling bananas in the market, did he start to realize that she was unhappy. Her mother was far off, in Jerusalem, and he thought it was that. He suggested the trips. She nodded, and went.
I understand her, his father said. I have a heart. But we need her, don’t we? Who knows if we won’t have to pack up and leave again soon, for some other country. It all falls on you, with me at work. She has responsibilities, after all. She is your mother. You must bring her back.
Alma reached out and touched a soft white cotton handkerchief to his cheek.
From the train station in Jerusalem he took the bus to Mahaneh Yehuda. He walked between the hawkers of bananas, cucumbers, melons, tall, short, fat, thin copies of his father. Then into the Iraqi market and through to the courtyard where men with moustaches smoked and played backgammon. Just as he was about to step into the alley on the far side, he stopped. A woman was singing. He realized, suddenly, that he had never heard his mother sing before. There were no words, her voice was like a violin’s, but he knew the Arabic words to the song, ruhi tilfat, my soul is weary. He saw his mother on her hands and knees, scrubbing the doorstep in front of his grandmother’s door, her back to him. He did not even stop to think. He turned around and returned to the bus stop.
She held up her sketchbook and turned it toward him. He glanced and saw the crowd, and his face below. It was his face not as he’d seen it in the window but as it felt inside.
“It is so easy to be by oneself among so many people,” she said.
“What will your father say?”
“Would it help if I come with you?”
He turned to her, angry. “He won’t beat me, if that’s what you think. There’s nothing you can do.”
Her eyes were soft. “I could teach you to draw.”
He looked at the page open before her.
“Would it help if I come with you? Or should we each go home alone?” She waited for him.
He wept, like the boy in her sketchbook, and then he agreed.
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