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Homesick

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January 1, 2010

I touch the stones, stroke them like you stroke a woman you love, but I don’t feel anything in my heart. I tell the Jews, there was a wall here, this is where my mother used to cook, that’s where the mattresses were and the heater next to them.

____________________________

And while I’m trying to stop the Arab, to push him out, and Gina goes to the kitchen and comes back with a frying pan to hit him on the head with, and we’re both yelling terrorist! terrorist! so the whole neighborhood can hear—Avram, who’s been snoring on the couch all morning, stands up suddenly, looks at him, barks uskuto! at both of us and walks over to him. He touches his shoulders, his hands, then his face, moves his finger over his cheeks, his nose, his forehead. The Arab is so stunned, he doesn’t move. Just stands there with his certificate and his rusty key. Not breathing. Then Avram gives him two light slaps, the affectionate kind, and moves a little bit away from him, the way you move away to look at a painting, and then he moves back, looks at him with dreamy eyes and says, Nissan, ya ibni, my son, welcome, and hugs him tight. Over Avram’s shoulder, the Arab gives us a what’s-with-him look, and Avram squeezes him tighter and keeps on saying, ya ibni, ya ibni Nissan, and the worker, who’s starting to feel uncomfortable, hugs him back with one hand, and with the other, points at Avram and says, my name is Saddiq, not Nissan. I never heard of this Nissan, and what’s with this old man? Gina recovers first, curses Yehieh under her breath and explains to the Arab: Nissan was our first child who died when he was two, the day we moved into this house, and Avram, he’s my husband, he has a demon inside him this week, he thinks Nissan’s alive and that we all know where Nissan is but we hide it from him on purpose, but Nissan’s dead. Avram, Gina says, putting her hand on his shoulder and trying to pull him gently out of the embrace, Avram, Nissan’s dead, kapparokh. Don’t you remember what you said to Yehieh? I didn’t say anything to Yehieh! Why are you lying?! Avram yells and pushes her hand away, Nissan’s here! This is Nissan! He moves away a little and points at the worker. Come in, ibni, he invites him with a sweeping gesture of his hand, sit down, we’ll get you something to eat, something to drink, we’ll make a place for you to sleep.

With all due respect, like they say, enough is enough. I’m calling the police now.Let them come and take you out of here, Mr. Saddiq.

Avram, listen to me for a second, I say, trying a more direct approach, he’s not Nissan, he works for Madmoni, Madmoni, your neighbor, the one who’s adding on to his house now? This is his worker, and his name’s not Nissan, it’s Saddiq. Who’s she? Avram points at me with a surprised look, then asks Nissan-Saddiq, who’s this woman who talks so much? Do you know her, ya ibni? Did you ever see her before? The worker looks at me, embarrassed. Avram, that’s Sima, Moshe’s wife, Gina says trying to remind him, and she points at our wedding picture hanging on the wall. Avram stares at the picture. Little Moshiko? He has a wife already? How could that be? You know about this, Nissan? Avram asks the worker.

Halas, I tell them. With all due respect, like they say, enough is enough. I’m calling the police now. Let them come and take you out of here, Mr. Saddiq. How can they take me out of here when it’s my house? Saddiq asks quietly and waves his certificate in the air again. I ignore him and go to the phone. Avram rushes over—just a few minutes ago he was lying on the couch and couldn’t move a finger—and steps between me and the phone. You’re not calling anyone, he yells, no one is going to take my Nissan away from me, do you understand? No one! If you call now, I’ll grab a knife from the kitchen and cut you and myself, do you understand? I stand still and look at Gina. She signals me with her eyes to let it go. Okay, I say to Avram, okay, you don’t need a knife, no one’s going to take Nissan away from you. Avram doesn’t calm down. He stands between me and the phone for a while to show that he doesn’t trust strangers. I don’t move. Gina doesn’t do anything either. Slowly, his eyes stop darting back and forth and he goes back to fussing around the worker: You want something to drink? Maybe black coffee? How many sugars do you take in your coffee? And Saddiq answers: No sugar, I like my coffee bitter. Avram gives him a big ear-to-ear smile, and says, just like your father. The worker nods and says Aiwah, and starts walking around the house. He knows that we can’t do anything to him now, so he allows himself to touch the stones, to go in and out of the rooms, to open and close the windows. He touches the wall that separates the bedroom from the living room and asks Gina, this wall didn’t used to be here, right? Gina says yes, we built it twenty years ago, and he nods without enthusiasm and says, I knew it. Look, I’m starting to remember, there, where the television is, that’s where my mother’s cooking stove was, that’s where she cooked so the smoke would go out. Where you cook is no good, lady, the smoke stays inside. Gina doesn’t answer him, no one answers him, we all look at him, hypnotized, starting to understand that maybe he wasn’t lying, maybe he really did live in this house once. He goes into the bedroom and the three of us follow him. He points, look, this is where my mattress was, and that’s where my big brother’s mattress was, and my little brother’s next to it. We slept very close to each other because it was cold at night, not like now with the heating you have. We only had a little coal heater, and sometimes the coal would get used up and we had to rub each other’s back and hands to get warm. My mother would go to the neighbors to get more blankets, but the door to the house wasn’t where it is now. It was on the other side, behind your couch. It’s still there, an iron door, you know it, don’t you? Sure we do, Avram answered quickly in a voice full of pride, you remember everything, ya ibni, you remember, and you, Avram said, turning to me, you lunatic, aren’t you ashamed to say that to Nissan? Look at how well he knows the house! Only a child knows his house like that, isn’t that true, ibni? Yes, abui, the worker answers him, playing the game and calling him father, knowing that as long as he’s Avram’s son, no one can touch him. He takes a few sips of the black coffee Gina gives him with hands that shake from old age and says, thank you very much, really, thank you, and then he puts his bag down on the floor and pulls out a toolbox. He takes a hammer and a chisel out of it and explains to us while he works. Fifty years go, my mother left something in there, above the picture where you put that hamsa, so if you don’t mind, I’m going to take it out now.

Before we can answer him, Avram says, of course, ya ibni Nissan, what’s mine is yours, take what you need, do you want me to bring you a ladder? Gina and I look at each other. The chisel is about to gouge the wall, but we’re both afraid to open our mouths because if we do, Avram will cut himself, and meanwhile, he goes to get Saddiq a ladder and comes back, and they both open it in front of the wall and start taking down the hamsa, and Gina comes closer to me and whispers, Sima, ileh amokh, don’t you have to get back so the babysitter can go? I jump at the chance that the two men are busy and won’t notice, and I tiptoe to the door, put my hand on the knob and press it quietly to open it, then I close it behind me without shutting it all the way, and run down the steps to our house without looking back. I go inside panting and say to Noa: call the police.

  *       *       *

I touch the stones, stroke them like you stroke a woman you love, but I don’t feel anything in my heart. I tell the Jews, there was a wall here, this is where my mother used to cook, that’s where the mattresses were and the heater next to them. I just say it, without feeling, like I’m telling Rami the contractor about how we’re doing on the frame. How long I’ve waited for this day, this moment, how much I’ve dreamed about touching these walls, walking on this floor, and now I don’t feel a thing. Here’s the old door. Here’s the window I used to look out of to see Wasim waiting for me, whistling. Everything’s here, even the old fig tree. But the smell, the house is full of their smell. The smell of that old man who thinks he’s my father, and of that woman with the wrinkles around her eyes. Their smell is in the walls and the floor and the couch and the door and in the air and everywhere, even in the coffee. So why did I come here? My mother was right not to let us go to the old house when everyone else went, in ’67. What for? It’s better to dream. To sing songs. It’s better not to smell this smell. Not to see that they’ve taken down the pink curtains my mother made and put up new blue curtains, that they’ve built a new wall in the middle of my parents’ bedroom, that all our things have disappeared, the small rug from Damascus, the lamp from Hebron, the one I almost broke once, everything’s gone. The crazy old man says that only his son who grew up in this house could know everything so well. Right? he asks me, right, my Nissan? Of course it is, I tell him and ask him to bring me a ladder. Aiwah. Sure, he says. At least I can do this. At least I can bring my mother what she asked for. This, I won’t give up. It’s a matter of honor. I don’t care what that young one with the tiger eyes says. I don’t care if she goes to call the police now. They’re like dough in my hands, all of them. I’m Nissan, the crazy man’s son. And no one can touch me. I’ll set up the ladder in front of the old door, the door that doesn’t lead anywhere now, take the hamsa off the wall, take the chisel out of my toolbox and start banging.

Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. An excerpt from the novel Homesick. Published in Israel by Zmora-Bitan. To be published in the U.S. by Dalkey Archives in April 2010.

Eshkol Nevo.JPGEshkol Nevo is the author of two novels—Homesick and World Cup Wishes—both translated into several languages; a collection of stories, Bed and Breakfast, and The Breaking-Up Manual. Nevo has received the Israeli Book Publishers’ Association’s Gold and Platinum Prizes (2005, 2008) and the FFI-Raymond Wallier Prize (Paris, 2008). Most recently, Homesick was a candidate for the 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (UK).

[photo credit: Moti Kikayon]

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