Skip to Content

Share

A Competition

By
January 1, 2010

The shower at our place is suffocating, as it should be. The water pouring down on me peels off the crust of dirt. It’s been three days now that I haven’t soaped myself. The head is itching and the hair is hard. While in the water, I can hardly believe I’ve finally reached this moment of scrubbing. So small is the room and the clothes in the corner are almost getting wet. The mop is next to me and the shampoo is pouring down upon my hair. The fingers are rubbing the scalp and I am closing my eyes, feeling the foam descending upon the stomach, in between my legs. I don’t open my eyes and I still find it hard to believe these seconds. It’s been three days that I haven’t cleansed myself because I couldn’t stand naked next to a gang of kids who were with me on the school trip. I remained dirty and I was hungry.

I got off the bus an hour ago at the corner, very happy to bid farewell to the screams of the wacky kids. Now I am washing, after which I will go to the cramped dining corner. That is where grandma is preparing me three fried eggs with garlic and green leaves. The smell of frying seeps in through the shower door and mingles with the smell of soap. That’s it, I am getting all tidy and soon my hunger will vanish. Maybe my father will join me for the meal. Before entering the shower, I catch a glimpse of him lying on the bed in his room. His head still shrunken like a Holocaust survivor and his eyes staring into space. I called to him “I’m home dad, the school trip is over, I’m back,” and grandma who was standing next to me, quickly sent me off to the shower, hinting with her eyes that he’s still on his road to the end.

Grandma places before me a plate full of eggs floating in reddish oil. She doesn’t remain by me but moves over to the open entrance door. The bread sticks to the plate and absorbs the oil and the egg-yolk and my hand is thrilled before it puts everything inside, and there’s the teeth colliding with the taste and I still can’t manage to settle down.

I move out to the corridor and turn off the water heater. Dusk has come and the light is bright gray. A tense feeling in the air of the tiny house. I have just completed the task of bathing. Wearing a T-shirt and wide trousers, I move into the stretched living room. The table is glued to the wall. The three chairs are clinging to it. Now to eat, that is all I want. Grandma is most probably sensing the juices gurgling in my belly and she serves white bread on the table. “Isn’t he eating with me?” I ask her and she waves me off with her hand and goes in the kitchen.

Nothing has changed with him in the last three days. But I grew up and received additional time that cannot be measured in years. I was a mean-man on the school trip. All the guys who were shouting next to me showed me very clearly the meaning of the changes that erupt in our mind and our body. These insights will have to be blurred now. It is very easy to do it at home, because no one is pushing or shoving in between the small adjoining rooms.

Grandma places before me a plate full of eggs floating in reddish oil. She doesn’t remain by me but moves over to the open entrance door. The bread sticks to the plate and absorbs the oil and the egg-yolk and my hand is thrilled before it puts everything inside, and there’s the teeth colliding with the taste and I still can’t manage to settle down.

I find it hard to ask someone what will become of us. Father is here but he’s like a rotten doll of the poorest people in the world. Grandma knows it and she doesn’t tell me how to grow up. She doesn’t teach me how to talk; rather, she stays before the staircase. More bread going inside and more oil in my belly and the mind signals to the organs that I am filling up with food, and here I start my plunge, identifying the remoteness abiding our home. It is swelling ever since my father began breaking down to pieces, barely human, not my grandmother’s son and not a father to a pale youth.

By the table, I see the light unchanging. Outside it’s the same as if this day refuses to come to an end. I have to go to sleep soon, my eyes are burning. Three nights I lay in a sleeping bag, not allowing my eyes to shut. Evil stones stung my back. There were boys and girls beside me who didn’t want to fall asleep. They shouted in the dark and tried to start touching each other. Some fell upon me on purpose and I waited for them to finish their lives right then and there. There is no real silence in my home now. I enjoy stretching my drowsiness but there’s something in this hour that doesn’t let me fall apart. Everything is stuck. Grandma is still standing by the door. She knows something is about to happen but she won’t tell me what it is. We have both lost our concern for father. He is decaying on the bed, sending us signs that nothing much can be done. He’s not even asking us for a few minutes of love.

That is why I am getting a little worried and I get off the chair. When will it disappear, the gray light which got stuck in the middle of six thirty in the evening? My clothes are clean and I will soon close the door to my room. And they, both of them, might as well stand up straight and lie down and be as serious as they wish to be. I will go to sleep and the silence will fall upon me all by itself and we shall greet one another. The kitchen is not clean but grandma will scrub it later. I put the plate in the sink and I move on to the narrow living room, pausing for a moment by the television that is shut and I turn it on. These Olympic Games are not over yet, it is so unpleasant to watch the athletic sportsmen. They are running around the screen, jumping from a high board. Their bodies dart into the sharp water, bathing in the blue. They are so brilliant and correct, so precise, knowing how to aim their hands and legs at a victorious jump. I stand for another minute before the screen and I fail to feel the tension of the world competition. Everything is very well drawn and the lines are parallel and overlapping the fields on television.

We have here an order of a different kind, no competitors around. No one offers me a challenge for body or mind. I see grandmother standing before the staircase and she senses my presence behind her. “Will you go to sleep?” she asks me. “Yes, just a minute,” I answer and I don’t understand why she is still there. What is it that could enter from the outside but won’t take place in our house? Father is probably shifting on the mattress. Maybe he also senses that something is about to take place. Loud applause coming from the television. Someone inside the set is very successful and he will soon receive a medal. After that, they will hold running competitions and the men’s sweat will look beautiful upon their bodies. But I don’t want to see it and I turn off the volume. I move towards father’s room, stopping before the door, eyeing him. He’s not looking at me. He hasn’t been talking for a long time and we can only guess him through the minute movements of the head. But there is one thing we can’t guess: how many more days will we have to wait with him in this state?

Suddenly grandmother is going down the staircase to the path in the courtyard. The gray light is still caught outside. Mingled cries are coming from the road. I follow grandmother and the cries grow stronger. Here it comes, whatever it was that grandma anticipated is now starting. I overtake her and open the gate. Children running towards the block and the open square. “A stone in the head,” “He was hit by a stone in the head,” everyone’s shouting and I move ahead, not knowing the kind of fear that has fallen upon us suddenly. “He went down like a corpse,” “He’s not moving,” “Who is it?” “He threw a stone at his head and he suddenly fell.” Wait a minute, wait, just a minute, I tell myself as I approach the courtyard. Children and teenagers are standing and jumping around. No one can stand still. “It’s Illan,” “It’s Illan,” “Where’s Illan?” “Illan fell, he was hit by a stone on the head,” “Where’s my Illan?” It’s his mother crying; now it’s his mother who’s crying. I know her and I can’t tell how she’s running amok after the blow that fell upon her. “Poor Illan,” everyone’s saying. Poor Illan, I also want to cry and agree with everyone about the tragedy that fell upon the child. I find it hard to approach the courtyard. Illan’s mother goes on shouting like mad, “Illan, my Illan.”

I cannot move, I know Illan very well. He’s a big and healthy boy, slightly younger than me. Illan is a good boy even though he’s not my friend. But what’s with him now? “Illan, Illan,” more and more screams from his mother like she’s roaring her cub’s end. My heart is beating and breaking down to pieces that plunge to my feet. A grown man enters the courtyard and breaks up the children’s chorus. Illan’s mother is asking for help. “Help me, help me,” she pleads. I see the large man lifting a body in his hands and approaching the road. All my weariness disappears and my eyes want to see how healthy Illan was transformed into a motionless chunk of meat. I step on the sidewalk, waiting to see the man. He is walking quickly and everyone follows.

Illan’s mother is the only one I can’t see but I can hear her and I wonder where her voice is coming from. Twenty meters and soon the man will pass by me and Illan will be before my eyes. A good thing that the light is not changing. The gray outside is bright enough and one can see all the details.

The man approaching, he is so big. And Illan who is resting in his hands, is not all that small but he doesn’t seem to be heavy. The children are marching after them like a path of demonstrators. More mothers join in on the road. No men around other than the big man whom everyone knows but no one knows his name. It’s better to be in the middle of the road. This way, I won’t miss anything. I go down to the smooth asphalt and wait two, three, four seconds. Everything is happening fast. The enormous man passes me by with Illan stretched out on his two hands. Illan’s head is lolling on its side and his lips are parted like he’s retarded, the hands are weightlessly falling down and that’s it, there’s nothing left of him because the man is taking big and quick strides, swallowing the distance, leaving behind only his long back to be seen.

Mothers and children continue to walk behind him. They are approaching the red car. “Wait a minute, wait. Everyone step back,” shouts the big man as he opens the back door and I can hear Illan’s mother again but I can’t see her and the big man is putting Illan’s shattered body in the back as he’s getting into the front seat, starting the car, and everyone’s surrounding him in excitement like they’re seeing some prince who has come to visit his poor kingdom, and then the car moves and disappears into the road within seconds.

All of us spread out, trying to guess what happened, how it happened and where’s Illan’s mother and what will become of Illan, and how old is Illan and the light lying between us starts to shift. A little darkness colors the dense air on the road and more and more talking and nobody’s heart can grasp the fate of this evening and how it will affect their lives because what is it that has actually happened here? Illan was hit by a stone in his head and fell down like a wooden doll in the open courtyard, he collapsed and dropped on the sand like some shrunken rubber, and us, could it happen like that to us? Only a second or two and our days will be gone? Even here, in my home or Illan’s, by this simple road?

I open the gate to the courtyard and I can’t manage to tremble. It is dark by now and nothing is stuck by the house. Grandmother isn’t standing by the stairs either. The remains of the talking are still flying in the air. We have left the road with the questions about Illan, our mind open like a vast ocean which only wants to swallow us. Grandma is sitting by the kitchen. Why didn’t you tell me anything, I’d like to ask her. The television with its pictures of the champions is silent. When will these games be over? On the bottom part of the screen, the word Seoul is written in green and red colors. Who knows this place anyway? What do they know over there about the great fall we have had here this evening? Father is not breathing well. The oxygen tank is working like a quivering machine. I don’t want to talk with them about Illan and they’re not paying any attention to my fear. I can go to sleep. I wish the sound of the oxygen would stop.

The morning leaves traces of yesterday. It doesn’t give in to us and doesn’t allow me to dream of a different place. In my room I look out the window. The sun is cast on the road and doesn’t clean anything. On the curve below stands Illan’s house. His mother is not there. I put on my clothes and move on to the table, unwilling to hear or see father. Grandmother has finished the first round of chores and she’s probably in the storeroom. I drink tea, gulp quickly, and collect my bag and leave. It’s better that I take the long route and avoid walking past the courtyard. I take a brief look behind, then a glimpse at our house and it seems to be almost fine. I board the bus at the square with some other children and teenagers. I am part of them and they are not part of me, nevertheless we are all on our way to receive an education at the regional school.

They are talking about yesterday once again. Everyone is talking Illan. I notice a girl weeping. Her tears are red but her heart is deceiving me. What does she really know about me? How can she learn about my home and the people living with me? Where is my father in her head? One cannot tell her nor anyone that Illan is actually my neighbor, that he’s just a normal kid who was hit by a stone on the head and collapsed like a corpse of a distant war, some crazy gang warfare which has child-soldiers holding a weapon in their hands, lacking any hint of compassion.

At school, the lesson is beginning. The children bring up the school trip. The class is trying to understand what is it that we have managed to gain in three intense days. I am far more advanced than everyone else and I don’t need to listen. There is nothing to talk about with the teen-age class, surely not about the agonizing trip. We were over and done with it four days ago, might as well dump it into the memory’s tomb. My eyes would like to sleep and the teacher is so set. Anyway, Illan’s tragedy is also a thing of the past. Some sentimental girls are seated next to me. They are saying that Illan’s mother is like a sick lunatic, sitting dazed and confused at his bedside. Someone is asking if it is possible to pay him a visit at the hospital. Everyone knows we won’t be allowed to see Illan connected to the respirators and the oxygen tanks. “Illan is only eleven,” says one of the thugs in the class, “No way! He’s twelve,” says another.

On the way back home, the bus is bursting with noise. There is so much life inside and no one has an inkling of how to make use of it. We will soon drive into the main street of our small town. I only hope there won’t be any new obituaries. Where I come from, they post obituaries in bold black letters and they do it with a certain sense of happiness. They scatter them along the street and mostly in the main square. How will my father’s letters look amongst the other colors? Illan’s name will now also have to be added to the chances. The competition is more difficult for those who are dying here but that’s fine with me. I would like to win today as well and stay within the protected days.

The bus takes a turn to the right and we have arrived. Nothing can be seen on the walls nor in the square and I let out a sigh of relief. The sun cascades upon me as I step onto the street and my feet carry me forward. I would like to remain indifferent but our situations don’t make life easy for us. Where can one find a good place now?

I walk past Illan’s home. It seems that the place has been abandoned for years. No mother there and not a chance for a father. The words his mother said yesterday continue to weep silently on the road. Poor Illan, I think to myself as I open the gate leading to the courtyard. The house is dark inside. The shutters were closed and the curtains drawn. Father is still here, no improvement since yesterday. Who turned on the television? Surely not grandmother because she’s not interested in anything outside our domain. I take a glance at the screen and can’t begin to understand how anyone can hold sporting competitions at noontime. How can they make an effort in the middle of the day? Why are they so serious regarding their body and their desire to see the result lower on the digital numerals of the red clock? The Olympics Games seem so very important. They are taking place in this place, Seoul. Only God knows where on earth these athletes are tearing their souls apart. I think about the local residents who are watching them with bewilderment, asking themselves how these foreigners managed to invade them with such shrewdness.

I peel off the jeans in the living room and throw them on the sofa. The smell of French fries is coming from the kitchen. Grandma likes me like that, when I am shoving fried potatoes in my mouth. This food calms us both, blocking the external changes that are trying to invade us. We would be more successful if father wasn’t lying in bed, leaving ourselves in some sort of glass jar with lots of pickling liquid. Maybe I would have even seen father wearing modern trousers and then he would have come to me, hinting that a day will come when I’ll be all alone but he would also explain that it’s not such a great tragedy because the skies above our house will help me understand it easily.

The evenings are getting cooler. We skipped autumn this year and found ourselves in winter. I usually enjoy the rain and the wetness but it’s not like that today. The voices of the oxygen tank are filtering into my room. I am praying that I won’t hear them in the middle of the night as well. It doesn’t work well with the hailstones banging on the shutters. The street is bathed in the silence of ordinariness. Scattered shouts of children playing are coming from the courtyard. They are cautious there. They don’t play with stones here anymore. Illan’s incident stands like a memorial pillar in our mind. Illan is still stuck in hospital. Now he is defined as a vegetable. The irritating girls say that he won’t last long, “Illan is a withering vegetable,” said someone and tried to be mature.

Yesterday I saw grandmother right in the middle of the curve. I caught sight of her from the window and she made her way on the road, stumbling upon Illan’s mother. They were both talking and their hair was dry. Grandmother seemed to be more upright. Illan’s mother was fat and short and she was wearing a wrinkled blue dress. They were probably talking about destiny and about the end that has fallen upon their children. I was moved by this encounter and I later went out to the courtyard. Neither of them was on the road and I could not guess where they had disappeared. I suddenly heard father say something and I hurried to his room. I approached him and got down on my knees, bed-high. “Do you want anything, dad?” I asked him. “Mm. . . mm. . . ammm,” he mumbled. “What is it, father? Speak clearly,” I asked him and tried to see some improvement. Father motioned to me to look underneath the sheet that was covering him. I lifted the thin linen and saw one leg detached from the body. I wanted to call grandmother and cry to God but I only looked into father’s eyes, and he maybe tried to soothe me because I saw that he wasn’t complaining of pains.

Now it’s not legs and not the head and not the mouth. That’s it, one can say that the important members have been erased from father’s body. He is about to lose everything. Our young neighbor Illan won’t win either. The nurse visited us an hour ago and tied father’s detached leg with a poor bandage. My grandmother smiled at her and went to serve her some tea in the kitchen. I waited some in the room until I could hear them walking down the stairs. Only then did I allow myself to release my shame from the room and make my way to the dark living room. The darkness I felt was too hard in midday. Father’s room was silent and from the outside came light knockings which I couldn’t identify. I turned on the television, wishing to see a new world. The brilliant games were almost over and the distant athletes’ tension vanished from their faces. Everything will return at last to what it was and this town will receive the precision it knows and the days will be as flat as the deserted running track.

Translated by Dan Ofri

sami berdugo.JPGSami Berdugo is the author of Black Girl (Babel, 1999), a collection of short stories; And Say to the Wind, (Hsifria Hachadasha, 2002), a novel; and two novellas published together as Orphans, (Hsifria Hchadasha, 2006). He has received several prizes, including the Bernstein award, the Peter Shwipert Award (Hebrew University), the Prime Minster’s award, and the Newman award (Bar-Ilan University). He is a former Fulbright Fellow—International writing program, Iowa University, and a former Kennedy Leigh Fellow at the Oxford Center for Jewish and Hebrew studies. Berdugo teaches creative writing at Tel-Aviv University and at Ben-Gurion University in Beer-Sheva.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Extinction by Thomas Bernhard.
A massive and condensed text that reveals a unique voice and an honest stream of consciousness. The protagonist is “coming back” to his homeland and confronts his family and his habitat and its nature. With his sharp and inconsiderate language, he creates an uneasy feeling on the one hand, but a very attractive and appealing one on the other.

For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell.
Beautiful and moving poems that reflect the sincere mood of a person who wonders from “here” to “there.” The poems are simple descriptions that lay on the prose elements in which the poet shares his feelings towards family and places, and everything together combines to create a compassionate picture.

The Book of Other People edited by Zadie Smith.
A collection of short stories written by several writers who “made someone up.” The stories are so different from one to the other, some are funny and witty, others have a slow rhythm, and most are peeking into a random and a routine way of life of a surprising character. Chris Ware’s graphic story is refreshing and fun.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

Share on FacebookShare on TwitterAdd to BufferShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrSubmit to StumbleUpon
Submit to redditShare on App.netShare via email

You might also like

  • Second ChanceSecond Chance Our Max lived his life straight as an arrow, fast as lightning, no ifs, no buts, at least until now.
  • Last Words from MontmartreLast Words from Montmartre The Taiwanese novelist's story of a passionate relationship between two young women.
  • The Book of ShapurThe Book of Shapur You take a vacation, you take a plane, and now this. You are running away from knowing this information. This is how things are these days.
  • The WidowThe Widow The husband did not stop until he reached the ocean. Did not turn to wave at the woman he would widow.

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting