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The Fragile Mistress


August 1, 2010

An unpublished excerpt from the novel, Edges, published by Grace Paley in 2005. The novel has since been re-titled and expanded for the feature film, The Fragile Mistress, currently in pre-production with Triboro Pictures. It will be shot on location in Jerusalem, Jordan, and New York, and directed by Michael Gunther.

 

The slain Arab boy entered my dreams all through July that summer in 1963. Some nights his penis was no more than a button and then it would grow into a cucumber, swelling until it became a long rifle. I brought it to my lips and bullets pierced my tongue. I saw him dressed in my old clothes, walking with his curly hair and olive legs, through the halls of my old high school. He had my voice, my physical confusions, my formlessness. A cloud of gender so dense I could feel the cumulous held in puffs above me.

This evening, I was watching the light crawl in through the window, and the shadows altering on the dirty mouse-colored basement walls.

I was lying on a mattress in the cellar of St. Sebastian’s monastery, across the border in Arab Jordan. It was six weeks after William and I witnessed the Arab boy’s death. We had settled down to live inside the cellar of a monastery we spotted the first night we crossed over the border. The abandoned building was somewhere between the end of the last Israeli military zone, five kilometers south of here, and the mountainous ledge overlooking the Jordan River, ten kilometers north.

The first day we were here, William sent his parents a Western Union telegram telling them he was all right. That hot day, he drew out some old linseed oil from his supplies, and propped some loose boards up against a far wall in our cellar. “I want to see if I can build a kayak,” he said. “Take it down to the riverbank. Soon maybe.”

He constructed a design then he began sawing the boards. A Bedouin trader at a camp by a cemetery ordered special epoxy for him, sandpaper from Amman.

What was my design? Did I have one? It was enough for me these bright days to have the reflections I saw of myself as a female on the window glass here in the monastery, the shadows William and I made together on our walls.

The monastery was built of sun-seared limestone blocks. A water tank stood outside the entrance gates, the tank’s rust and emptiness giving the walled garden inside the complex a disreputable feeling. The garden was filled with shreds of litter, errant vines. The dilapidated chapel above our heads might have been the hideaway of a gang of thieves, with its cloistered vaults and grottoes.

Here in this spot, I thought, there must have been a Village of Lepers, too. Long ago maybe. Sometimes I believed I could smell the mold of a thousand years in these cellar walls.

“American Girl Suspected Killed By Jordanian Sniper,” the first headline read.

Listlessly, I studied the writing on a pill bottle William picked up for me in the village for my headaches. It lay on its side, a few meters from the mattress on the floor, near the plates of Muscat grapes William and I washed this morning after the farmers dropped us off from the back of their wagon. We picked the wild grapes in the fields. I read who the prescription was made out to: “Dorian T. Karchimer.” We changed my name from Liana Bialik. What the T. stood for? I forgot now, and then, just as abruptly, remembered. “Tree.” We had given me the new middle name “Tree” when I changed the rest of my name.

The first headline in the Israeli papers appeared the first Monday in July. William bartered with a Palestinian merchant to bring us some Jerusalem Posts when the man went furtively across the borders to sell his farm goods. “American Girl Suspected Killed By Jordanian Sniper,” the first headline read. Could I have let this go this far? I took in the must of the evening now. Into six weeks? Of everyone really believing I was dead?

The air smelled like goats and sour plums. In the early evenings here, the lizards that skated through the bushes looked almost translucent. We had hiked four miles into the Jordanian territory to find a place to camp. A decrepit sign had been left in the jasmine garden of the deserted monastery that appeared to us the first night of our sojourn. The sign read: “WARNING: YOU HAVE LEFT ISRAEL.”

On a wobbly table lay William’s maps and his personal things: recent letters from his parents, journal entries in a spiral notebook, photographs.

Thirty times a day in waking dreams, I saw the slain boy catapult from a tree branch into the dust. In the blinding white sky of afternoons here, reality could be swallowed. Death had become part of a glittery quarry of inner thoughts that mirrored the rocky reaches outside, the vast brink of limestone and white clay. My naps were long and deep, not like the ones at Metaduleh Street in my mother’s bedroom. I found a reason to escape her. A man with a repository of secrets let me into his life. I had been made love to as a woman. Triumph took hold of me now as it had almost every day William and I had been in the cellar, and it made me feel a little faint, blending into the fantastical aura of stonescape and barren land. There were no rich and moist fragrances here or loud voices. The dry air and the whiteness colluded with the hills, a foil to my mother’s land.

The refugee camps had steep paths and white-yellow fields that reeked of dung. Sounds of muezzin and their daily chants echoed from the shabby mosques. The mud-brick huts and tents were peaceful, even joyful, with no electricity or telephones. Ovens inside them were fired by smoking eucalyptus branches, bath water was warmed by fire. Fires smoldered, and smoke rose at night and in the mornings. And there was fighting far away now. Gunshots heard at midnight, by dawn the air was still and quiet.

The surrounding desert hills and mountains created a moonlike, unreal landscape of caves and caverns and parched-white earth. Syria was to the north, past the Allenby Bridge, and further east were Jordan’s mountains and valley, paralleling our lime-terraced hills. The nearest Jordanian town was a good fifteen miles away.

The Christian Arabs lived in Bethlehem, which was not in Israel in 1963, but some of them stayed here where the border signs were, in UN refugee camps that used to be sheep farms, groves for produce. They were not from families that like my mother’s, owned businesses, held engineering degrees.

My mother’s friends, forced from their homes by the last war, “The War of Independence,” left behind their villas and summer resort houses and could, like the birds, migrate back to the cities. Friends of my mother’s father, mirror images and virtual doubles of the Silberfelds, middle-class or upper middle-class colleagues, were now in Amman or Beirut where they wouldn’t have to worry about the water or the snipers. But the farmers, mostly Bedouin, had stayed.

All around us, farm families lived and worked off the dusty, unyielding land in the run-down camps of mud brick huts, deserted villas, torn tents, with their stalls full of goats and cows, olive tree groves, orchards, and citrus nurseries. For the last few days, we saw a jeep from the nearest town, the Jordanian military guards, canvassing through the winding dirt roads, binoculars strapped over their shoulders. There were Mercedes-Benz sedans that occasionally rattled through the narrow lanes, and when we saw the shiny metallic gleam of them, William and I hid in our cellar and shuttered the windows.

One night (was it a Sunday? It was so hard to keep track of the proper names of each day) I heard a helicopter, and I wondered if it was my mother in the plane searching the forest for her missing daughter. Several times, I had tried to walk back to the spot—where the barbed wire was before the gunshots sounded, to where, even if my mother had tried to cross through the long path in the pine forest—the metal spokes would have blocked her search further, or the snipers in the trees.

Near his duffel bag lay William’s blueprints, a map down to Jericho with notations on some new caves rumored to have more fragments from First Corinthians. They kept turning up in some of the caves there, with other lost portions of the original apostles.

The information in the Arab papers and on the Jerusalem radio station was controlled, but from the Arab version of the Jerusalem Post we could at least find out that border skirmishes were close-by and how far the war over the Jordan water supply had advanced. The monastery was too near the barbed wire borders between the two armies for it to be safe for us to take the kayak through the fields, to the land’s end in the bright sunlight. Israeli troops were camouflaged even here in Jordan and Muslim snipers were in the bushes. We could too easily be heard in the bushes, scraping the ground and, dressed in our new muslin clothes, mistaken by either side as the enemy.

In the nights, our radio played news about the hostilities between Jordan and the Syrian fighters who bombed water dams in the Golan and the Sea of Galilee to prevent the water from reaching Jerusalem. During the dinner hours and in the early morning, when Israelis on the other side were eating their breakfasts of tomatoes and cucumbers and yogurt, and hoping there might be enough water in the tap for their tea and Nescafe, the news continued to report that no agreements had been reached between the Syrian and Lebanese fighters and the Jordanians here. The West Bank and its population of refugee farmers were caught inside the battle over what to do about Israel, the “water problem,” the precious flowing streams. A Navy vessel had engine trouble out at sea somewhere near a coast in Maryland and, homesick one night William and I listened to reports of John Kennedy giving a Profile in Courage medal to the American seamen who brought the vessel safely back. The French had trained a mouse to travel into outer space; he wore a space suit with a corset and springs. At the same hour, an A-bomb had been tested in the Sahara. William and I kept switching the channels. The reception was bad, and the local Arabic songs and singers sounded like a swarm of bees.

I kept house these days, sweeping up the dust, scraping mildew off the windows, washing our clothes in basins with ammonia and lemon, and making our meals.

From the radio, William also learned that travel to Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and the Jordan Valley was too dangerous for all foreign visitors until further notice from the Jordanian military guard. He listened for news about the archeological digs going on in the caves of Abu Dis. Some European academics had come into the area last week. William had already gone to their camp without me with his maps, and scrupulous notes.

He asked me to get up early in the mornings to watch the kayak when he took it outside a few times, into the garden to let the sun dry its epoxy and wet glaze. He left it propped up then—against a cypress tree like a curvy monument or trophy. The farmers’ boys were also up by dawn, and William didn’t want anything to happen to the kayak.

It gave me an odd feeling standing there by the water tank, the summer sun on my hair, scaring away kids who, recognizing my American denim skirts, shouted out: “Hey, girlie,” and then ran away.

The Bedouin farmers helped William and me pick tiny grapes off some vines by our water tank in the monastery’s garden. The roughfaced farmers with their keffiyehs and long poles showed William how to fish for olives in the fertile trees by the road. They were strange and kind. One of the farmers had taught William how to search some of the white soil by his hut, comb the ground for fallen almonds and peel the succulent, oval nut with his front teeth the way they did, sucking out its sustenance and sweetness. The farmers spoke in low Arabic tones, laughing at his sunburn, his mass of accumulated bright brown freckles.

The farmers’ boys wore white handkerchiefs on their heads, but their faces were raw from the kharmsin winds. The heat reached 102, dry, unrelenting, the shade under the cypress trees was as devastating.

The sound of some farm tractors out the window gave me a start. I looked down and studied my bare feet. The shrubs and stones these past days had cut into the skin of my bare toes and heels, and, drifting again into my thoughts about these two short weeks, I remembered the Arab vagrant boys picking car parts off abandoned vehicles on the sides of the road into Ramallah; using the worn car tires for soles to their sandals.

William and I spent afternoons in the fields and sometimes some of the boys came to sit with us and tell us about flying saucers, how they saw one fall from the sky when it was midnight. You could see them sitting on big rocks, looking for flying saucers in the fields. The Jordanian children’s books were filled with such stories.

Near old deserted villas, towards the bridge that crossed into the old city of Jerusalem, the grapes were bigger, purple, and white. Their skins were sweet and the wagons full of farmers went out in the mornings to pick them and bring them back to the shops in the camps to sell to the UN workers and other Arabs who came down from the cities and towns. Stalls of fat and juicy grapes and wild tomatoes with whizzing wasps overhead had begun to proliferate in the center of the camps where there were cafes, too, and a few kiosks that sold the American newspapers, Le Monde, and the Jerusalem Post.

William found the relics of old Palestine by the orchards: mosaic tiles, gargoyles, and pewter once belonging to the gardens of the vacationing Sultans. They were buried in cacti and dry sandy ground, converted into decrepit farming tools that the Bedouin used, along with abandoned, debunked wagons and bits of British exploring gear from the open expeditions once possible down to Jericho and Eine es Sultan, before World War II came, and then the Israelis—the scrambling of boundaries and borders and rebellions. The farmers seemed resolute, but random incidents around the orchards were daily now. Gunshots could be heard from treetops, and strange Arabic youths appeared in the woods from the far-off cities, keffiyehs pulled all the way around their mouths so that only their eyes showed. They were dressed in military green and wore boots, not sandals.

Unemployment would soon be rampant in the camps, the crops, vines, and trees, depleted of produce by August.

G

Skolkin-Smith-Bio.jpgLeora Skolkin-Smith has received grants from The New York State Council on the Arts, The Department of Cultural Affairs, The Robert Gage Foundation, Patricia Kind Foundation, and others. Her first published novel, Edges, was nominated for the 2006 PEN/Faulkner Award and The PEN/Ernest Hemingway Award. Edges, was also a National Women Studies Association Conference Selection, a Bloomsbury Review Pick, 2006: “Favorite Books of the Last 25 Years” and a Jewish Book Council Selection, 2005. She is currently a contributing editor at readysteadybook.com, and her critical essays have been published in The Washington Post, Critical Mass, and The Quarterly Conversation.

Writer’s Recommendations:

Clarice Lispector, particularly The Hour of the Star but all of her work. In Brazil, she’s so important they actually have a stamp in her honor.

Peter Handke, a story about his mother’s suicide, A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, recently gripped at every part of me (I had expected it to be abstract but it was so passionate; he can write the most intensely personal story that gives me a sense of the entire world.)

Not all but most of Roberto Bolaño floors me. My favorite is The Savage Detectives but I loved Monsieur Pain and Amulet. Still getting through 2666.

Most recently, I’m immersed in José Saramago’s All the Names.

And lastly, I loved Anne Enright’s The Gathering.

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  • The Consequence of SkatingThe Consequence of Skating Life at an empty amusement park: An excerpt from the upcoming novel
  • Part of Us that Can’t Be TouchedPart of Us that Can’t Be Touched The novelist on Goon Squad, the drug-taking intensity of high school kids, and the Gothic novel.
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  • The World Without YouThe World Without You He’s mopping at his pelvis with a wadded-up tissue, and then he’s mopping her up as well. Already the backs of her thighs are caking up.

One comment for The Fragile Mistress

  1. Comment by Anita on December 21, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Absolutely lovely. So filled with imagery I felt like I was there, touching, engaging and moving to read. Thank-you.

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