Mother tells me not to say anything at school about what is happening at home. Nothing is happening at home. Come morning, I wake up from my restless sleep and either I wetted my bed or I didn’t. If I did, mother silently packs off my soaked pajamas and the damp sheets, casting a harsh glance at the black stain that seeps into the bed’s upholstery. The house already reeks and she opens the shutters and lays the linen on the window panes, half out and the dry half in.
I get dressed and brush my teeth. I stare at my feet that are the shape of irons and conceal them, standing on one naked foot and then another, enthralled by their curvaceous obesity. The white paste and my saliva swirl in my mouth and drip on my undershirt in odoriferous stripes. I have bad breath but I don’t know it yet. Nir will tell me and then I will. I frown and pull the polluted garment away, as though I could undress horizontally instead of vertically, hands stretched upwards. It turns dark for a moment and scary so I scream. And this is how I earn today’s first slap. Mother dumps the soiled underthings in the gaping laundry pale. Her eyes are desperate. I am not a successful kid. I am ugly and immature and I have an eggplant nose (“berengena” in Ladino). I rub my hurting cheek and put on the sky blue school uniform shirt and trousers. I don’t know how to tie my shoelaces. Instead of slender butterflies I get knotted caterpillars, bound larva, repulsive insects with two plastic tipped antennas. My mother is taking care of my small sister. I wait patiently. She sighs and places the baby on the bed. She steps towards me and I recoil because I don’t know how mad I made her. I am not sure what it’s going to be this time. Sometimes she just groans and ties the laces with one incisive motion but at other times she pinches me real hard and we are both mum and my blood streams down to her nip until the place acquires shades of black, and blue and deep purple. She doesn’t have to tell me to roll down my sleeves. I do it. The dirty laundry of this family stays at home. Our secrets are ours and no one else’s. Sometimes I imagine us like a fortress and the enemy would kill to learn all kinds of things about us but we are not going to let it, no way. We will protect each other and we will hold them back.
On the days that mother washes the house, I withdraw to a corner and I imagine a mighty army, shooting arrows from all kinds of cracks and casements and I see a hero and he is fighting empty-handed in a variety of martial arts and he wins. Cooped up in an angle, the dirty water churning around me, rivulets of our effluence, revolting strands of hair and nail clippings. Then she spreads a tattered blanket in the tiny balcony and turns on the radio and we listen to the Program for the Mother and Child, Listen now you lovely kids, our program is complete and she brings me a big bowl of fruits and I eat them and feed my sister, too.
When the shoelaces business is over, I turn my back to her and await the heft of my schoolbag and I exit without saying goodbye or so long or anything. She yells after me to be careful how I cross the street, there are cars, and to be wary of children, don’t let them beat you. Once, a stranger lifted me on his shoulders and asked me to read aloud the names on the mailboxes. We went through many buildings, him and me. He told me that he was looking for some family. When I returned home, they shouted at me something awful and warned me not to associate with strangers because they are dangerous, this is a fortress and we are in it. Even our extended family don’t visit. Mother and father don’t like it when they do. They set a table with all kinds of alcoholic drinks and non-alcoholic beverages that we, the children are allowed to consume but mother’s eyes follow everyone to see if they have touched anything and she doesn’t like at all the mess they make, these guests.
I don’t pee at school because the urinals are not clean or something. I don’t remember why, I just know not to pee. Mother tells me not to hold back, it isn’t healthy but I abstain on purpose. I want to pee at home. When I come back, mother doesn’t let me visit the restroom to get sorted out. That’s how we call it, “sorted out”. It’s a word the teacher Mina taught us, she said that it is not nice to pee, better to get sorted out. Mother adores this word and it became compulsory, because we are not allowed to use foul language. So I ask permission to get sorted out and mother takes a broom to me and beats me forcefully on the back and all the neighbors stand at the entrance door and watch and I pee on myself and on the floor is this large yellow puddle in which I stand. Mummy’s broom gets all wet and the neighbors laugh and mother sends me away to change my clothes, perhaps now I will learn not to hold back at school. She takes down my trousers and I am exposed to the jeering crowd, drenched and naked. It isn’t a good day, this one. I read all evening and I read at night and I read during the morning. I read a lot throughout this not so good day.
Mother could have been a famous author or an important actress but instead she had us and did not become one. She became a housewife. There is a lot of sadness and a lot of anger when she tells us that and also how once she appeared in a play as Pook the naughty dwarf and everyone complimented her and urged her to join a professional troupe. She couldn’t do it because she was working in a shoe store on Mount Carmel to support her father and her mother who didn’t love her at all because she was boyish. She wore her hair like a boy and dressed like a boy and was as daring as a boy and she gulped huge quantities of salty soup and three loaves of bread when she came back from work at the shop owned by the Yekkes (German-Jews) whom she admired. When I was born, the radio broadcast the proceedings of the Eichmann trial and she called me “My Little Eichmann” but that was only in jest. These Yekkes with their order and efficiency and table manners and how she studied German and they all admired her in return. And now this: a wailing baby and the dripping bed sheets of her first born (you are not a child anymore!) already six years old and must grow up and her fingernails gouging my veins on the inside of my arm and all my blood rushing towards her and staining and she stares down at her hand, a glimmer in her eyes wide open and I slowly extract my arm from her grasp and she does not resist it. She just sighs and brings some stinging violet iodine and smears it on the lacerations. After some time they scar and all that remain are pale and elongated mother traces.
So now I am reading and am in all my imaginary kingdoms and writing horror poems that mother finds and stashes on a towering cupboard to make me stop it because it’s sick and she doesn’t want to see it again. She tears the books I borrow from the public library and flings them out of the concrete bars that frame our laundry room where we also dine on a tiny wooden table. Through these bars she tears my realms apart and down to the shriveling grass and I leave everything and gallop downstairs because I am afraid that by the time I get to my shredded books someone will abscond with them or the wind will scatter them or the rain. I find them prostrate and wounded and I salve them with my spit to heal them like mother’s purple iodine. I think that maybe my saliva will glue them back thick as it is but they remain the same, only now their torn pages are also damp. Back at home father and I sellotape the ruptured leaves and when I go to the library, I say all kinds of lies or put on an innocent face so that the librarian Shula will not flip through it and see our shoddy handicraft, my father’s and my own, even tough he has golden hands and fixes everything at home. But I keep reading, sometimes five whole books a day. I am completely uninterested in their content. I don’t read even one of them to its end, skip numerous paragraphs, don’t even finish thrillers or mysteries. Just scan the pages, dimly aware of the words and father says to mother when she curses me under her breath, what do you want from him, you don’t understand him at all and who can, he doesn’t belong to us, he is from another planet. I weep when I hear these words, my silent tears, not the cries I give out when I am beaten and not the self-indulgent whimpering and see how ugly you are when you are like that. No, this is a true release between me and my pillow and I feel then how poor they are and how much I should pity them and not the other way around, because I am not from this world and I don’t belong and they have to raise me all the same. Even though they are proud of me because I am a star pupil and give the keynote addresses in all the school and municipal events and declare open and closed all the ceremonies and from a tender age I had the voice of s radio announcer and am a prodigy with a bright future. Mother herself tells me that when we sit around the table and she looks my age she is so young and with a boyish haircut and pink, taut skin on her high cheekbones. She says that she is proud of me but not to let it go to my head, but there is a change in her attitude towards me, like a new fear, like I am out of the fortress now, unpredictable, from another world and don’t belong.
She used to tell us about Gamliel the Sage and his adventures that always had an object lesson with his scrawny and miserable goat and his stupid neighbors that he always tricked and we would beg, mother mother, more and she graciously consented and those were afternoons of magic and I felt no need to read, only to listen to the stories of the Sage and his donkey and his son and his goat and to sip from that sweetened peach-flavored drink she made us.
But then she would say enough and ask who touched the refrigerator and we would say not we but she knew. She always pointed at us and said that we had touched the refrigerator and we know we mustn’t and how her life is being ruined by the need to clean after us and then the beatings, the beatings. All our body.
In the middle of the apartment we have a floor-to-ceiling metal divider. Father welded it together from metal leaves and metal vines and stuck a small aquarium full of teeny fish and water and a plastic diver that gives off bubbles and all kinds of shells and fine ground sand. Every morning, father gets up and spreads smelly aquarium food with callused fingers over the bubble-troubled water, rusty flakes that sink like feathers straight into the gaping jaws of the frenetic fishes. Every week one of them would remain stuck at the bottom or float and the others would snap at it and we know it is dead and it is bloated too. At night, I sleep across from this divider, on the side that mother forbids to enter during the day and the flickering light emitted by the electric all souls candle illuminates the diver and the inky water and his loneliness and the bubbles and everything and I watch it all until I fall asleep. Come morning, the room beyond the divider is off-limits, only mother is scrubbing and carefully dusting the nightly build-up off the expensive Formica furniture. I am the only one who sleeps there at night, facing the television set. Even guests are asked to watch this black-and-white wonder from the outside. Until my bedtime, I sit overlooking them all but don’t take my socks off not to show my feet like irons and I hope not to wet the sheets in front of everyone, anything but that. Mother passes cookies to old Monsieur Yossef from Turkey who talks incessantly. And so I doze off amidst the sounds of the TV and of Monsieur Yossef. I have bad dreams and listen to mother and father arguing I will pack my suitcases and leave you all tomorrow, feel free, mother says, feel free to go. Tomorrow he doesn’t. He gets up at the middle of the night to go to work and before he departs he straightens our blankets and I think that maybe he kisses my cheek or forehead somehow, otherwise how did his stubble scrape me it must have been a kiss.
The next day father brings me books from the library of the Union of Construction Workers in Haifa that I never visit. I do go with him to attend lectures at the Union and I ask the lecturers smart questions and everyone is amazed and so is dad. He inflates the way he always does when he is proud of me. Now in the book he brought me there is a story about a king and clothes and a kid who has the guts to cry even though it is the monarch and everything: “The King is Naked”. I read it a couple of times like I don’t believe that some kid will shout such a thing about the king and what happened to him afterwards, surely he was scratched and pinched at least to death. I contemplate his iron-like feet, petite and rosy when he ascends to the gallows and how his head rolls sprinkling gore all over the crowd but everything is frozen and no one cheers like in the movies about the French revolution. Everyone gapes at this kid’s lips through which he said that the King is Naked. There is something empowering and hopeful in this, as though a goodhearted old fellow with long hair bends over me because he notices that I am small and that I am bleeding profusely from my arms and he gives me this magic spell, this faith.
I open my eyes and I see that mother has a kerchief on her head, like she always wears when she is dusting. She notices my stare but she sings boisterously and I know that I am unnerving her by watching her do her chores. I know that soon she will mete out what a child like me deserves.