In the Presence of Strangers: Moving Day (Chapter VII)


It was eleven-thirty in the morning and Raz wished death upon his sister. After his night in Tel Aviv, he was in no mood to begin the day before the late afternoon, and the never-ending uproar of Yael moving her things out of the house was hindering his attempts to fall asleep. He had always been a light sleeper. From a creaking door to a ringing telephone, even the faintest noises seemed to converge into an atonal shriek that gave him no peace. He kicked his legs wildly beneath the sheets, trapped somewhere between slumber and fury. For a moment, he harbored a secret urge to leap out of bed and throw his sister’s boxes out the window.

After a long time, he realized that he was asleep again. He tried to resurrect a dream that the sound of Yael’s footsteps had interrupted. Unfortunately, he couldn’t remember its content beyond the fact that it had somehow involved Yasmine. He eventually decided to invent a new scenario inspired by the same theme.

He pictured himself sitting next to her on a breakwater, waves rolling rhythmically beneath them. (He took note of the uneven texture of the rocks on which they sat and congratulated himself on the realism of his imagination.) After a pause, he reached out to touch her hand. Suddenly, she began laughing at him. At first, it was only a chuckle, but it soon evolved into a giggle, and then into a snicker, and finally into pure hysterics. He wished that she would stop. He tried joking with her, reasoning with her, screaming at her, and yet she remained impenetrable. At last, as her cries reached fever pitch, he lunged forward to silence her by force and fell headlong into the sea. Drowning, he looked up and saw her for a final time sitting contentedly on the breakwater, a Sphinx complete with a misshapen nose. The answer to her riddle was in her laughter, but the question itself remained a mystery. She opened her mouth to speak. He swam toward her, desperate to hear what she had to say, and after an unbearably long pause, she whispered,

“Get out of the way, Yonatan! These boxes are heavy!”

Raz looked regretfully at his alarm clock. It was 12:02. He cursed under his breath and waited for the monitor to read 12:03. He counted the seconds silently in his head—one, two, three, four… He considered leaving the bedroom—five six seven eight… The most difficult part of waking up was done, and he wasn’t so very tired anymore—nine ten eleven… But then his mother would force him to help his father move his sister’s boxes, and that was the last thing that he wanted to do—twelve thirteen fourteen days in two weeks. Not two weeks and had gone by since her birthday and Yael had already enrolled in preparatory courses for nursing school, opening her life savings account to rent an apartment in Tel Aviv. Since then, Miriam had become afflicted with daily tantrums directed against anyone unfortunate enough to walk into her line of sight. As the atmosphere of the house became progressively more unbearable, Nachum perfected ignoring his wife and children into an art. Raz felt ready to move out. The clock read 12:04. He’d lost count of the seconds.

A stuffed dog and a blue and white plaid blanket that he had slept with since his infancy had fallen to the floor. He picked them up and tucked them both beneath his arm. He studied the ceiling of his room and counted two hundred and thirty-seven cracks. He wondered if he had counted correctly, but the darkness made it difficult to tell. His bedroom had a vaguely nocturnal air. The song of crickets was mimicked by the buzzing of an electric fan, and the glow of a fluorescent clock took the place of moonlight. Despite the late hour, the illusion remained a tolerably effective one. The pages of a wall calendar rustled to the rhythm of the fan and provided the room with an intoxicating cadence. Raz soon found himself drowsy again. He hid his head beneath the pillow. Unable to breath, he rose, turned it over, and buried his head in its cool side. He sighed and began to stroke his stomach with the tips of his fingers.

He imagined Yasmine’s hair rubbing against the hollow of his neck. He imagined the smell of her perfume, the coolness of her hands, and the weight of her body on his chest. He fumbled to find her lips and saw himself reflected in her eyes. He tasted her breath as she leaned over to whisper something into his ear. He couldn’t understand what she said, but she spoke with such self-assurance that whatever it was seemed terribly important. He cried out with pleasure. Her lips silenced him. Then, suddenly, he began to tremble. His reflection in her eyes had disappeared and in its place he saw the image of her laughing at him again. His vision began to spin until the room dissolved into a series of strange horizontal streaks. Her laughter had grown nearly deafening. His body heaved with adrenaline, and he reached into the air to grasp at nothing until he heard his mother shout,

“I want you to take this box, Yael! I want you to have it!”

“I don’t want it, Ima! I don’t need your charity!”

“Take this box!”

“There’s no room for it in the car! Besides, I don’t need your rags. I have enough clothes of my own.”

“Take it!”

“Sit on it!”


Raz’s body was beaded with sweat and he felt an unbearable pressure in his head. The clock read 12:45. He turned onto his right cheek, then onto his left. The clock read 12:46. He felt a mosquito bite on his left toe. The clock read 12:47. He touched a canker sore on his lower lip with his tongue, and its sour contents seeped to the back of his throat. The clock continued to read 12:47. He felt unclean, but had no energy to take a shower. Presently, he heard a loud crash in the hallway and a muffled sequence of voices.

“It was an accident! I was only trying to help.”

“Yonatan broke Saba’s lamp!”

“What’s for lunch, Miriam?”

“Did you hear me, Aba? I said that Yonatan broke the lamp that Saba gave me! Who cares about Ima’s lunches, anyway? With recipes like hers, it’s better to go hungry.”

“Did you hear what she just said to me, Nachum? Did you hear what she just said?”

“Not Nutella covered pita bread again, Ima! I hate Nutella!”

“Be quiet, Yonatan! They’re killing me, Nachum. Our children are like monsters.”

“Maybe it runs in the family.”

“That’s not funny, Yonatan. Don’t be so sarcastic!”

“Are you ready to leave, Aba? I’m ready to leave.”

“Not before you take this box!”

“I won’t!”

“Take it!”

Raz rushed into the kitchen and screamed,

“Everybody shut up!”

Miriam, Nachum, Yael and Yonatan interrupted their arguing and stared at him.

“You’re waking me up, for God’s sake,” he said more hesitantly. “Please stop.”

Yael rolled her eyes and left the kitchen to take a final box of clothing out to the car. Yonatan stared guiltily at the floor. Miriam sneered.

“Your father is breaking his back moving your sister’s trash out of this house, and you want to sleep through the afternoon? You should be ashamed of yourself. Help Aba with your sister’s things.”

“But I’m exhausted, Ima! I’m sick to my stomach.”

“Then go to the bathroom and vomit, but when you’re all done, help to move these boxes.”

“I’ll help you, Raz!” cried Yonatan. “I’ll help you!”

Raz drew a deep breath and cast his mother the most pitiable expression that he could muster up. She turned away from him, unmoved. He knew that he shouldn’t have gotten out of bed. His eyes darted about the room, eager to find some means of escape. He saw his sister reenter the house and approach her mountain of possessions in the living room. He smiled.

“Should I take this box out to the car, Ima?”

“No!” said Yael. “I’m not taking that box!”

“You are!” insisted Miriam. “You are!”

“I don’t want your box of old clothes! I don’t want anything from you! It will only clutter up my new apartment!”

“Who said that these are old clothes?”

“Anything of yours is old!”

“Are you hearing this, Nachum?”

Raz snuck out of the kitchen and returned to his bedroom. His skill at avoiding manual labor supplied him with a momentary thrill until a feeling of acute melancholy took its place. He could not forget the sight of Nachum’s expression when he left the kitchen. He had never noticed just how haggard and wrinkled his father’s face had become. He remembered a time when he had seen him as a Greek hero, a kind of Ulysses whose intelligence and sense of irony were so refined that his son could step forward and declare to the world in Shakespearean tones that this was a man. His views of Nachum had long since changed, and he felt vaguely guilty for the transition— not because he pitied his father, but precisely because he did not pity him. His quips went unnoticed, his ironies unheeded, and for all of his wit, he was nothing but an under-manager at the ELCO factory and unlikely to amount to anything else. When he wasn’t provoking an argument, Nachum had little to say, and after Raz passed beyond a certain age, he seemed to have nothing in common with his Aba. Now, he felt little empathy for the sarcastic and talentless shell of a man hunched over in the kitchen, and empathized with himself for his lack of it.

By now it was 1:30, and the house had at last grown silent. Raz couldn’t fall back to sleep. He began to play with a loose string on his T shirt and stare lazily at the rays of sunlight squeezing between the curtain and the window pane. He thought to himself that soon it would be dark again, and then it would be light, and everything at 10 Anna Frank Street would remain the same. His brother would remain a nuisance, his mother would remain neurotic, and his father would remain an emotional recluse. But then again, perhaps things weren’t as static as they seemed. Yael was leaving—Yael, whom he had loved so completely as a child, until that awkward day they never talked about which created an increasingly gaping gulf between them that widened until they seemed to share little in common but a last name.

And she wasn’t the only one on her way out. He was going to the army in October. The timelessness of summer was only an illusion. His mother, his grandmother, his father, his brother, none of them were trapped in time, none of them were immortal. They would all die someday, every one of them. He would die someday. It was as if an invisible river was pushing them all toward jagged reeds and there was no hope of escaping the current. And then there was only death, a dreamless sleep without an end, insensible and permanent. These thoughts converged into a dull ache deep within Raz’s stomach. More than ever, he found himself longing for Yasmine. His inability to understand her motives served as a convenient distraction from these kinds of thoughts.

It was 2:04. He heard Nachum sound the car-horn in the driveway. He wondered if Yael would knock on his door to say goodbye. He was her brother, after all. To his disappointment, he soon heard her taking her leave of his mother and younger brother, and realized that she would not be coming to see him after all. Now he was happy that he had refused to move her things. She deserved it for her lack of loyalty. He closed his eyes, imagining the scene in the hallway as he heard it play out.

Shalom, Yonatan. Maybe Aba can bring you to visit me next week.”

“I don’t care.”

“Why are you being such a brat?”

“Why couldn’t I have come with you today? Why is Aba the only one who gets to see your new apartment?”

“Because it’s a disgusting closet, and there would be no room for you there.”

“Thank you for that, Ima. Shalom! God help me if I ever come back to this place.”

“Remember that.”

“I will!”

“Take this box!”

“For the last time, I don’t want it! I don’t want your trash!”

“Shut your mouth and look through it before you talk!”

Shalom, Ima!”

Raz heard the sound of a door opening and closing, a long pause, and the roar of a car driving away. Yael was gone. A minute might have gone by, or it might have been an hour. He didn’t care to look at the clock. He was fully awake now, but had no strength to begin a day that was already too long. He put his hands to his eyes and pressed down on them until bursting ribbons of color formed beneath his eyelids. The sight of a yellow spark reminded him of the Dizengoff fountain, and his thoughts turned inevitably toward Yasmine again. He heard the sound of footsteps, and he felt a cold hand on his forehead. A tingling anticipation burned beneath his skin as he imagined Yasmine standing over him. Then, he opened his eyes and saw Ilana.

“Your mother let me in,” she whispered, stroking his hair. “I got here just before your sister left.”

He looked at her uncertainly for a moment.

“What are you doing here?”

“I came to see you,” she said, sitting next to him on the bed and fumbling to kiss his neck. “We haven’t seen each other in almost two weeks. Not since that night at the beach.”

He sat up.

“That’s right, Ilana. So what do you want from me now?”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. What do you want from me?”

“Nothing! I just came to see you.”


“What do you mean why? Because I love you!”

“You have some nerve sneaking into my bedroom without knocking. You’ve ignored me for two weeks. You didn’t even call. Get out of here.”

“Excuse me?”

“Get out.”

“Why would you say that to me?”

“Because I want you to leave.”

“What’s come over you?”

“Disgust. Disgust has come over me.”

Until that moment, he’d avoided looking directly at Ilana, but now he stared right into her eyes. Although he was ashamed to admit it, he found the expression of terror and confusion on her face gratifying. Whenever they fought in the past, he’d resisted the urge to leave her. Now the tables had turned, and he found himself charged with some newly discovered, wonderful sense of power. He rose from the bed and began to circle her in the darkness. He was almost having fun.

“I’m disgusted,” he repeated, “with you and your friends and your endless complaints. I was relieved not to have to talk to you for two weeks, to be honest. I thought that it was finally over between us… and I was right. We’re done.”

“I don’t believe that you’re saying this! We should at least talk about it more.”

“I don’t want to talk about anything. I want it to end.”

“What’s wrong with you, Raz? Stop it!”

“Happily, as soon as you leave my house. I tell you, I don’t want to see you anymore.”

She laughed nervously and moved to open the window.

“You’re sick,” she said. “Being in this room all morning has made you sick. I think you need some air.”

“Don’t touch my window.”

“You need some air!”

She pulled aside the curtain and stared at him with a desperate look on her face. The light illuminated her from behind so that Raz thought to himself that she looked more like a shadow than a human being. She sat on the foot of his bed and began to make frantic small-talk as he reached for a magazine and theatrically ignored her.

“Should we go out for a drink, Raz? Do you want to get some beer? Nathan said that his idea of a perfect life was drinking beer, listening to jazz, smoking Marlboros, and having a girl thrown into the mix. Isn’t that clever?”

Raz kept his eyes on his magazine.

“Well, that’s certainly not my idea of a perfect life.”

“Then what is?

“For you to leave me the hell alone.”

“Why are you acting this way?”

“For the millionth time, because I want you to leave!”

“I will leave!” she said, barely suppressing tears. “I will, if you’re not careful, and I won’t come back! There’s only so much that I can take! You humiliated me in front of my friends, but I was good enough to come here and give you a second chance, and you… you… you can go to hell, you and your big mouth! Nobody gives a damn about anything that you think or say, anyway! Of course, now that you’re handsome, people might pretend that they find you interesting, but they’re only playacting. You’ve never had an original thought in your life. The only way you can construct a personality for yourself is by blindly contradicting what other people say.”

He had scarcely been listening to Ilana, but her final statement caught him off-guard. He set aside his reading and addressed her quietly but deliberately.

“You don’t give a damn about what I think or say, and I don’t give a damn about you.”

She looked at him incredulously, but his spiteful expression seemed to indicate that he was in earnest.

“I won’t let you do this to me, Raz. I mean, we can’t let it end so easily! We need to talk this over some more. I gave you a chance by dating you when no one else would. I didn’t care how you looked, because I wanted you for your soul. Appearances meant nothing to me.”

“That’s funny. You just said that I was totally unoriginal and appearances are all I have to offer.”

“Don’t twist my words. I wanted you ever since we were kids and our parents would drag us to the same parties.”

“Really? I think the only reason you’re fighting for me so hard is because you think I’m good looking now, and you’d be losing a prize if I slipped through your fingers. But there’s no real depth of feeling between us.”

“You’re being evil to me. You can’t look into my eyes and tell me that I don’t mean anything to you now, after all of the memories we made together and all of the stories we told each other.”

“Ilana, I don’t have anything else to say to you.”

“But if we could only-”

“There’s no use dragging this conversation on for even one second longer. Nothing is going to convince me to stay with you. Nothing. I’ll be happier without you, and God knows you’ll be happier without me. In your heart, you know I’m right. We’re going nowhere and should have the maturity to surrender gracefully to what’s inevitable. I’ll never forget you, or that you wanted me when no one else in the world seemed to want me. But our story is over now.”

She stared at him silently for a moment before rushing out of the room. He closed his eyes very tightly. Everything seemed like a dream. He’d been so preoccupied with thoughts of Yasmine that he had nearly forgotten about Ilana’s existence. He hoped that he’d seen the last of her after that night in Netanya. As it was, he meant every word of what he said to her, though he very much regretted causing her pain. He stretched his arms and rose from bed. He felt rejuvenated and was eager to begin the day now. The clock read 3:33. He placed his blanket and stuffed dog on the foot of the bed, then walked toward the kitchen for a snack.

He didn’t pay attention to his mother sitting on the living room couch. Beside her was the little box that she had spent the previous night preparing for Yael. It was overflowing with a heap of report cards, childhood photographs, and drawings that she had saved since her daughter’s birth. She looked blankly through a scrapbook, remembering when her own mother had given her a similar album on the day she married Nachum. As she turned one of the pages, a yellow piece of paper fell onto her lap. It was Yael’s first drawing, a picture of a little house with three stick figures smiling pathetically in front of it. Miriam folded it up carefully and placed it into her purse. Then she began preparing dinner.





Despite his mother’s incessant pleas to the contrary, Raz refused to a wear wrist watch. They rubbed against his skin, felt like shackles, and plucked the hair from his arm whenever he took them off. Worse yet, they inhibited his social graces. Whenever he found himself alone in public, he would approach interesting looking passersby in an attempt to discover the sound of their voices. Asking for the time led to friendly little chats on everything from sports to the weather, discussions just honest enough to energize him and just brief enough to avoid the tedium of longer conversations. But he knew that he would only seem ridiculous if he asked for the time while wearing a watch of his own, and consequently considered pragmatic necessity yet another reason to disappoint his mother.

But although he enjoyed this little victory over the trappings of adulthood, his triumph was only a limited one. There were other accessories of everyday life to haunt him. He particularly suffered under the tyranny of house keys and wallets. He could never stop checking to see that they remained safe in his pocket whenever he left the house. Eventually, he became so unnerved that he would jump in horror whenever he wore a new pair of pants and discovered an empty compartment. But he was anxious for good reason— he was terribly scatterbrained. In fact, he was thinking about how forgetful he was when he realized that he had forgotten the flowers he’d bought for Yasmine at home on the kitchen counter.

He could hardly believe his bad luck. Nobody brought flowers on dates anymore, but he didn’t care; the opening line that he had in mind for Yasmine wouldn’t work without a bouquet. He knew that he’d forgotten something the moment he stepped out of the house, but had left all the same in his eagerness to beat the evening traffic. Although he was a long way from home and already running out of gas, he was so overcome with disgust that he felt a strong desire to return to Kefar Sava to correct his mistake. He had meant for that night to see the initiation of his new suave persona, and he wasn’t about to become a sloppy strategist and arrive on a first date unarmed.

He was momentarily awakened from his torments by the realization that traffic had ground to a halt, caught up in a line of cars beside a cemetery. A funeral party was passing by, and taking its sweet time. The other drivers restrained themselves from sounding their horns out of a vague sense of common courtesy. But Raz was too exhausted to be polite and pounded down on the horn with all his might. Somebody was dead, but did that mean the living should be boiled alive in their cars? It was an unusually hot evening, and he thanked God for the car’s air conditioning. How had the older generation of Israelis survived rush hour traffic without it? He groaned in exhaustion as he positioned his brow beside the ventilator. Its soft hum proved temporarily soothing, and though its stale smell was far from pleasant, it was offset by the scent of a vanilla air freshener hanging over the dashboard. But he couldn’t remain calm for long and thoughts of Yasmine’s bouquet sitting neglected on the kitchen counter soon infuriated him all over again.

He was unsure what to do. Would his mother drive the bouquet over to him? That was unlikely. She was completely self-absorbed ever since his sister had enrolled in summer courses at Ramat Aviv and moved in with their grandmother. Would his father bring it to him? He was probably asleep. He cracked his knuckles violently and mumbled about how much he hated himself sometimes.

But then, he caught sight of a solitary grave tucked behind a sandy incline. On the headstone, a bouquet of flowers larger and more expensive than the one he had bought for Yasmine seemed to lie in wait, taunting him. Before he could stop himself, he left the car in the middle of the road and hurried over the hill. Taking care not to look at the name of the grave’s owner (he considered that doing so would have been unethical), he snatched up the roses and dashed back to the car, twice falling down the incline before leaping back into the driver’s seat. The funeral procession had since passed on and the way forward was open. Driving away to the sound of car horns and curses, he congratulated himself on finally being equipped for battle.

Following a tediously lengthy drive made a little bit shorter by the thrill of what he had done, he reached the maze of streets before Dizengoff Center and began to look for a parking space. After a long and unsuccessful search, he became all the more eager to abandon his car in the middle of the road when he caught sight of Yasmine waiting for him by a roadside kiosk. She was wearing a short red skirt that clung to the top of her legs and a loose fitting blouse to match it. Her eyes seemed even rounder and darker than he remembered. Despite the inadequacies of the bridge of her nose, he assured himself that she was a strikingly beautiful girl well worth the effort of subduing. If he could conquer her, he told himself, then he could conquer anyone.

At last, after a Hassidic Jew rolled out of a choice parking space beside a Eucalyptus tree, Raz positioned the car by the side of the road, double-checked that his wallet was safe in his pocket, and walked gallantly toward Yasmine, bouquet in hand.

“Roses for a rose,” he proclaimed in English, handing her the bouquet with a dramatic bow.

“More like thorns from a prick,” she declared with greater fluency.

He choked for a moment on his own saliva.

“I see that you speak English well enough to make jokes in it, but you might have at least thanked me for the flowers before you insulted me.”

“I’m sorry, Raz,” she said, accepting the flowers. “I couldn’t resist my opening line. It seemed so… appropriate.” Before he could speak, she added, “Thank you for the bouquet. Roses on a date—how… uh, American of you. I feel like the heroine in a black and white movie or something. They’re very nice, if impractical.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, what am I supposed do with them now?”

“Put them in water. I don’t know.”

“I forgot my koom-koom at home.”

Yasmine pronounced the word koom-koom with such a hilariously sarcastic lilt in her voice that Raz had to smile. She pressed her advantage.

“Well, I think that even you’ll admit that lugging these flowers around Tel Aviv is a ridiculous thing to do. Will you take them back to your car before we head out, or throw them out, please?”

She curtsied as she presented the flowers to him, mimicking his earlier efforts at gallantry with all the accuracy of a little mirror. Raz felt a twinge of excited curiosity as he headed back in the direction of the Ford. But as he reached the car and placed the bouquet in the back seat, a sense of melancholy suddenly came over him. Her flippant reaction to his bait had failed to justify his crime in stealing it, and he found himself unexpectedly regretting his escapades at the cemetery. But his crisis of conscience was short lived. He decided that it was too warm that night to brood. The air itself seemed to sway as if it were distorted by hidden flames.

When he crossed the street to meet Yasmine again, he saw that she was looking through her handbag. She produced a pocket mirror and checked her mascara. Then they walked together toward a roadside art exhibit. He noticed how supple the skin of her neck seemed to be. He felt a strong urge to reach over and brush it with his hand, but he would hardly know what to do with his arm once he positioned it over her shoulder, and since he didn’t want her to think that he was trying to strangle her, he set aside his little temptation.

Eventually, they reached a long line of people waiting to enter the exhibition. A blonde child holding a baby in one hand and a sign pleading for alms in the other sat beside the ticket counter. Raz was happy to see him, since propriety seemed to demand that he perform an act of charity in recompense for his earlier antics at the cemetery. So after a deliberately lengthy sigh meant to illustrate the depths of his compassion, he prepared to drop a shekel into the boy’s hat. But just when he stepped forward to do so, Yasmine said,

“Do you ever get the urge to kick or otherwise attack panhandlers?”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t stare at me like I just pushed your mother in front of a bus! Answer my question honestly.”

“Well, the answer to your question is no. Other people’s misfortunes don’t give me the urge to kick them.”

“So beggars really don’t irritate you at all?”

“No, Yasmine… I mean, not unless they’re too aggressive.”

“But they make their livings as parasites. Why don’t they get real jobs?”

Although Raz sensed a playful cadence in Yasmine’s voice, he was unsure about her motivation in questioning him like this. Until that moment, he had never encountered anyone who seemed to take as much pleasure in testing other people’s limits as he did. He continued to err on the side of caution.

“It’s not so easy. Some of them are profoundly damaged or addicted or mentally ill. Besides, that boy can’t be more than twelve years old. Have some compassion.”

“Twelve my ass— he’s fifteen at least by the look of his pimples, and probably older too. And that filthy baby he’s holding couldn’t possibly be his brother. It looks like he’s from Thailand. I wonder where he picked him up. Is it really compassionate to help kidnappers?”

“Are you completely heartless? Those two kids might be starving, for all we know. Hypothetically, would you at least consider giving them food?”

“I don’t typically carry breadcrumbs around in my purse.” She clapped her hands, ready to change the topic. “You have a stain on your collar, you know. But it’s alright— it suits you, somehow. It’s a nice shirt. You have good taste. You look great tonight.”

He nodded proudly. His grandmother had bought him the shirt only a week before and he’d picked it out himself to wear that night.

“Thank you, Yasmine. You look very nice yourself.”

“Could we go for a walk in Dizengoff Center after we finish with this exhibit of yours? It feels like we’ve been standing in this line forever. Are you sure that this place is worth the wait?”

“Yes,” he said, suppressing a smile as he mimicked the words he had once spoken to Ilana on a similar occasion, “the boundless limitations of modern art are endlessly interesting to me.”

“I’m not sure I know what that means, but is that toilet seat really on display?”

“It must have a point. Maybe it represents the vanity of modern values or something.”

She grimaced. Gradually, they moved toward the front of the line. Before they reached it, though, she dropped a mountain of shekels into the young beggar’s hat. Raz looked at her inquisitively. She laughed.

“Of course, I didn’t mean anything that I said before. I only wanted to see what kind of a person you were. Personally, I’m always generous to strangers. My father used to tell me, beggars come from God. There was an old woman who lived down the street from me when I was a girl. I’d hold her hand and help her walk down the street sometimes—she always liked to ask strangers to hold her hand. It was probably her only form of human contact. I’ll never forget that she told me once, ‘I wish that God would take me. Nobody loves me, and I’m no use to anyone. I’m always in pain, and I don’t deserve to feel like this all the time. I wish that God would take me.’”

“Wow, that’s intense. What did you say to her?”

“That maybe she should contemplate suicide.”

“That’s not very funny.”

“I didn’t say anything, of course. But I gave her some money, and it brought a smile to her face for a little while. Everyone is waiting for you to move forward, you know. We’re at the front of the line.”

By now, Raz was eager to show her that he was equally as clever and interesting as she was. But wit can never be summoned up on command, and the best that he could do on such short notice was to ask the woman at the counter for tickets for two children. The cashier was confused by the request and asked where the children might be, but Yasmine understood the intent of his meager joke and did her best to counterfeit amusement. Raz appreciated this. Most girls would have struggled to show their disdain for his pitiful attempt at humor, but this one seemed so self-confident that she had no need for contempt.

They collected their tickets and wandered into the sea of broken beer bottles and bathroom accoutrements that made up the exhibition. When they passed beside an enormous pyramid of toilet paper, Raz whispered,

“Do you kind of have an urge to push it over?”

“No. This place is full of trash, and I’d be afraid of catching the plague if I touched anything here.”

“Well, at least we can both recognize garbage for what it is.”

“You mean to say you don’t like this sort of art?” He shook his head. “Then why did you take me here tonight?”

“To see your reaction.”

“My reaction?”

“I think that these exhibits are ridiculous, but most people are so eager to seem sophisticated that they pretend to love them and it gives me a chance to laugh at them when I-” He stopped himself mid-sentence. Yasmine was so artful that she had tricked him into a measure of honesty.

“Don’t be embarrassed, Raz. To be honest, the only reason that I agreed to come here tonight was to laugh at your pretentiousness, so I see that I’m in good company. Evidently, we both get off on underestimating each other.”

He decided to shift the topic of conversation along safer and more academic lines.

“Do you think there should be some sort of objective criteria for judging art?”

“Absolutely not.”


“Of course. I guess that historically, some eloquent types have tried to construct formulas defining what constitutes good and bad kinds of expression. But all of those theories are just based on different kinds of bias, and they mean absolutely nothing to me.”

“What do you mean?”

“Like, most people call sculpture a high art, but not basket weaving. But it has nothing to do with the forms themselves—one just has the misfortune of being practiced by minority groups and women who live far away from big cities, where the critics lurk.”

“That’s a very interesting theory.”

“Anyway, artists can do as they please for all I care. I’m no critic. There’s a thin line between art and pornography, and it’s all the same to me.”

“That’s an awfully cynical thing to say.”

“But it’s true. Critics think that they know everything, but their opinions are no better than anyone else’s. I think that in the end, taste is based on what we’re used to and what triggers pleasant memories. But we all have different life stories, so there’s no objectivity when it comes to preferences. That’s why no one has the last word when it comes to art, and it drives intellectual bigots up the wall.”

“But sometimes it’s almost impossible not to be judgmental about art to some degree. I mean, with no standards at all, the only thing determining what’s worthy of display or not is hype, and artists just try to one up each other in shock value all the time to attract cheap publicity.”

“You have a point there.”

“It used to be that artists tried to convey beauty. Now they say they’ve after truth, which isn’t always beautiful. Well, that’s fine. But along the way, I feel like something fundamental has been lost. What will future generations think when they look at the pompous trash filling our museums? I mean, it must say something depressing about the state of world culture that one time period produced the Sistine Chapel and ours can only produce this sort of…”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is shit,” offered an old woman who’d overheard their conversation.

Raz and Yasmine began to laugh so loudly that they inadvertently attracted the angry glances of the people around them. But their scowls only fanned their amusement, and Yasmine cried,

“Let’s get out of here! Raz. These people are so full of hot air that one of them might burst open and stain our clothes.”

He continued to laugh hysterically.

“Hot air doesn’t stain, it burns!”

“Who cares? Let’s go!”

“But why? There are so many things here to laugh at.”

“A walk through the city is more interesting to me than this dump. Tel Aviv is like my drug. Let’s go to Dizengoff Center.”

Before he could say another word, she rushed out of the gallery and he dutifully followed her. His thriftier side would have resented paying thirty shekels for tickets and leaving so abruptly, but it was so exciting to be around Yasmine that he hardly noticed the loss. At length, they reached Dizengoff Center and its fountain of concentric circles, a notorious contraption resembling a three layered wedding cake that vomits up flames every hour on the hour. They found a comfortable perch on the marble lining of the fountain and looked down at the coins lining its bottom, the relics of strangers’ forgotten wishes.

“Tel Aviv is one of my favorite places on earth,” said Yasmine, rolling a ringlet of hair with her forefinger. “There are so many places to visit and so many things to buy!”

“I love the houses we passed by on the way over here,” said Raz.

“Really? But most of them were just grimy apartments.”

“No, Yasmine. Think about it this way. Every window represents another life, and every one of those lives is caught up in its own dynamic— a boy coming home from school, a mother cooking dinner, a father driving to work… a thousand secret stories. I think it’s wonderful.”

“Well, those secret stories sound awfully uninteresting to me.”

“In my eyes, there’s nothing more interesting than the little details of everyday life.”


“Good question. I don’t know. I guess I think that nothing reveals human character more. Sometimes, even the way that someone does something like peel an apple can be graceful and beautiful and significant. Know what I mean?”

Yasmine looked closely at him for a moment. Then she shrugged and stretched her legs out on the fountain. The bustle of the city seemed to calm her. Raz, however, swung his arms around nervously. Although he barely knew Yasmine, her immunity to his charms only increased his determination to win her over. But how could he faze her? At last, he decided to challenge her wit with silly, empty queries. He believed that the truth of personality lay hidden within the tangential, and quick responses to extemporaneous questions might reveal an Achilles’ heel. But before he could begin questioning her, Yasmine said,

“If you could give up two of your five senses, which would they be? If you had to choose, I mean.”

“That’s easy,” he answered. “Smell and taste.”

“Choosing smell and taste is clearly cheating. Which of your real senses would you give up?”

“Aren’t smell and taste real senses?”

“They’re not the important ones. Sight, hearing, or…”


“But speaking isn’t really one of the five senses either, is it?”

“Touch, taste, smell, vision, hearing. No, I guess you’re right, Yasmine.”

“That old woman sitting next to us certainly smells, doesn’t she?”

“She’ll hear you!”

“I don’t think so,” she said, producing a joint from her pocketbook and lighting it. “She’s probably deaf. Is that man sitting next to her a grandson or a gigolo, I wonder?”

The man in question leaned over and inserted his tongue into the woman’s mouth.

“An overly affectionate grandson,” laughed Raz. “Greed enslaves some people, I guess.”

“No, Raz. Not some people. All people. We’re all slaves to our own self-interest, aren’t we?”

“Well, I guess so. Some people even say that love is a sort of slavery. What do you love most of all, Yasmine?”


“Very funny.”

“But it’s true.”

“Then I suppose by that logic, you’re a slave to yourself.”

“But then I’m not a slave at all, right?”

“Maybe that proves only selfish people are free.”

She offered him a puff, and he accepted. He began to cough violently, which amused her. Then, without warning, she spun around and clutched his hands as if charged by a sudden inspiration. His face went white.

“What’s the difference between a gigolo and a prostitute?”

“Excuse me?”

She frowned and let go of his wrists.

“I was expecting a witty answer from you, Raz, and not another question as a response. But I suppose that the difference between a gigolo and a prostitute is that one drives a fancy car, and the other gets into the back seat of one. I’m sorry if that wasn’t especially clever, but it was the best that I could do on short notice.”

He frowned.

“There’s really not too much difference between them at all when it comes down to it. They’re the same in that they both throw away their lives. God only knows why people make the mistakes that they do.”

“Maybe you shouldn’t be so judgmental about the choices that other people make.”

“Are you some sort of moral relativist?”

“Well, not entirely. Some things are true in all times and places. For example, I think that for the most part, people’s stupidity, laziness, and cowardice are pretty universal.”

“How horrible.”

“I’m only being realistic. People everywhere are always second-guessing themselves. They’re never content.”

“Do you really think that contentment is such a virtue?”

“It can be, as long as it doesn’t turn into complacency.”

“I think you’re playing at semantics. The words are synonyms.”

“I don’t think so. To me, complacency seems negative, but contentment is related to self-confidence, which is probably the single most important aspect of a strong character.”

“What do you mean?”

“People should learn to be confident enough to be content with what they can’t change and proactive about what they can. That’s the very opposite of complacency. And I’ve found that with enough self-confidence, you don’t have to go around excluding other people to feel important…”

“I’ve lost you, Yasmine.”

“Well, never mind. I’m giving myself a headache with all this philosophy! Who knows what I’m saying. It just goes to show, don’t try to justify your good ideas, because you’ll only end up complicating them. What do you think the most important attribute of a strong character is, if not self-confidence?”

“I’m not sure. I’ve heard that smart people learn from their mistakes and smarter people learn from the mistakes of others. But I think that the very smartest people of all learn from their own dreams.”

“What do you dream about?”

“I dreamt last week that I was drowning in a sea of toothpaste. What do you think it means?”

“A secret fear of bad breath?” They both laughed. “There’s no need to interpret dreams if you want to know yourself, Raz.”

“But I do know myself.”


“I’m a Jew.”

She smirked. He arched his back.

“You have bad posture,” she said. “I mean, really atrocious. You should see yourself on camera. You walk around like the hunchback of Notre Dame.”

“I thought that you didn’t read books.”

“I saw the Disney movie.”

“Well, thanks for the compliment, I guess”

“But your eyes are soulful, so that makes up for it. I wonder, what do you think my best attribute is?”

“Your eyes, also.”

“And my worst?”

“You have a big nose.”

He cringed at his daring, but he was desperate to faze her, and nothing seemed to shock or upset the girl.

“Do you really think I have a big nose?” she laughed, speaking with the same speed and vivacity that had characterized her earlier conversation. “I’ve never really had a problem with it. I think that it gives my face character.”

“If character is a synonym for imperfection,” countered Raz, still eager to elicit an emotional response from her and not another confident retort.

“Well, imperfection is in the eye of the beholder,” she answered casually. “But if I’m really such a hag, I don’t understand why you’d agree to be seen with me. I can’t help the way I look, but you control your own company.”

“Would you ever consider getting your nose fixed? You wear enough makeup, so appearances must be important to you on at least some level.”

“I think that my nose makes my face interesting. You’ve been fixated on it for the past five minutes, haven’t you? If it were any smaller, we’d have nothing to talk about.”

“Fine, Yasmine. Let’s talk about something else. Tell me about yourself.”

“What you see is what you get.”

He smiled in anticipation of her evasive response. She clapped her hands.

“Oh, the gigolo has gone away, our entertainment for the evening has walked off! What do you say, Raz? Do you want to go for a walk?”

“You’re not even remotely insulted by me?”

“No, I appreciate your honesty. It’s wonderful that you can be so open with somebody you hardly know. But your unibrow is fair game for ridicule now. By the way, will you be burying a thank-you note for the roses?”

“What do you mean?”

“Just this— if you’re going to steal bouquets from a graveyard, at least remember to take the condolence card out from under them.”

His heart began to race. He attempted to improvise an explanation, but she stopped him with a wink.

“Don’t worry about coming up with an excuse. I think that the situation is hilarious. And besides, if I can guarantee one thing, it’s that no one will miss those flowers. Now, come with me.”

Before he could fully process the odd turn of events that had just transpired between them, she took his hand and led him off into the shadows surrounding Dizengoff Center. She was the first to act, but then he took control, and she loved it. He didn’t kiss her like she thought that he would. His style was unexpectedly self-assured and hungry. Though his playful assertiveness provided the illusion that he cared most of all for his own pleasure, he was almost intuitively attentive to her slightest response to his body. He stroked her face gently with the tips of his fingers and whispered thrilling profanities into her ear. For a moment, she felt such melting happiness that she was sure that such pleasure must have been a sin. Experience itself had never taught her that anything so satisfying was bound to come with a great cost because she seldom felt much satisfaction in life at all. Still, her intuition warned her that this kind of ecstasy was dangerous. But all she could do was try to ignore the sense of the dread and let the moment overpower her before it was over.

There were no human voices now, no artificial lights, no bright corners in which to hide. Colors were gone and dim grays veiled the scene. Forms were barely recognizable and there was no distinction between the eye and the imagination. There was nothing but silence and soft skin. The energy of conversation melted into an effortless intensity of a different sort, nearly overpowering in its unexpectedness. The moon disappeared and the air went black. There was nothing left but touch and smell.

Then, without warning, flames shot out from the marble fountain. They leapt into the air and fumbled for the sky before plunging back again into the water beneath them. They waver at the tips and weave their way into each other’s bodies, dancing as a single fire. They will disappear forever after their little moment of display is done. But before they do, they will give rise to new flames that will leap and mingle in turn. And so it goes on into eternity, so long as water is wet and fire is hot and the two mixed together make steam.

In the Presence of Strangers: An Unpleasant Surprise (Chapter V)


“Engaged! Doda Sara, isn’t it exciting?”

It was nearly seven-thirty in the morning, but Miriam had long since lain awake in bed, eager to begin spreading the news about Shlomie Shachar’s proposal to friends and distant relatives alike. At 7:00, she considered it late enough in the day to begin the onslaught. Ariel, Orli, and cousin Tamuz had all been informed. Now it was Sara’s turn to learn the happy tidings.

“No, Sara, you can’t speak with her just now. She’s still asleep. She marched straight into the house last night without saying a word, but I knew by her smile that something was up. Well, when I followed her into the bathroom and told her to spill the beans, she said that Shlomie had proposed! We both started laughing, and after a good, long, chuckle, she asked to go to bed, and said that there were important arrangements to be worked out in the morning. Can you imagine it, Sara? My oldest daughter is marrying the son of Abraham Morgan!”

After a final little delighted yelp for good measure, Miriam composed herself and began to run her fingers through her hair. Weddings were costly affairs, and the Gutmans were not Rothschilds. The Shachars would undoubtedly try to dominate the arrangements, and Nachum and she could hardly be expected to finance their extravagant plans. Of course, it was only fair that Shlomie’s family should bear the brunt of the cost. But if the Gutmans refused to pay for the wedding, they would probably relinquish all say in the subsequent preparations, which seemed equally unjust.

By this time, Miriam was no longer listening to the chipper banter of Doda Sara. There were more important things on her mind. She wouldn’t allow her daughter’s wedding plans to be commandeered by strangers. She wished that they had the money to pay for everything themselves, with no thought to the meddling of Abraham and Tziporah. But it was not to be. The Gutmans were shamefully middle class. She looked regretfully in the direction of the master bedroom. Her husband was asleep. Even behind closed doors, she could hear his snoring. She felt a dull pain in her stomach, and wondered what disease this might have been a symptom of.

As she made her way to the medicine cabinet in search of Tums, Yonatan shuffled sleepily into the living room. He curled himself up into a little ball in front of the television. Nightmares had interrupted what little sleep he finally had, and he’d spent the final part of the night in Raz’s room, where his older brother always let him stay. There was little space for him in the bed, though, so he hadn’t gotten much rest.

When she saw Yonatan, Miriam excused herself from the telephone and handed him a slice of Nutella covered bread. She’d been expecting an unhappy welcome from him that morning and hoped that this special breakfast would placate him. Unfortunately, her attempt at reconciliation was rewarded by an ungrateful groan.

“Just eat your breakfast and be quiet,” said Miriam, returning to the kitchen. “It’s good for you. It’s made from real hazel nuts.”

“I don’t want it,” said Yonatan, searching for the Children’s Channel on television.

“What do you mean you don’t want it? It’s delicious.”

“Then why don’t you eat it?”

“Eat that pita bread, Yonatan.”

“No. Nutella covered pita bread is for babies. I hate it. It makes me want to puke.”

“You never complained about it before.”

“That just shows you never listen to me. I’ve been your son for nine years, and you still don’t know my tastes?”

Miriam flapped her lips. Her sons were impossible to manage. Thank God for Yael. Her obedience was a reminder that she continued to possess at least some modicum of authority in the house, however slight. Then, suddenly, it dawned on her that her daughter would leave Kefar Sava once she was married and then she would be left alone, condemned to serve a pack of thankless males forever with no reprieve in sight. Overwhelmed by this unhappy revelation, she complained loudly and suddenly of arthritic pains over the telephone, thoroughly startling Doda Sara.

Yonatan threw down his breakfast plate.

“Why couldn’t I have gone to Yael’s party, Ima? It isn’t fair! And why couldn’t I have had a piece of-”

“Eat your breakfast and shut the hell up!”

He trudged back into the living room without another word. His mother resumed her telephone conversation and he found a cartoon on television. The noise of gossip and anthropomorphic robots soon inundated the house and the battle was momentarily forgotten.

Awakened by these early morning screams, Nachum now entered the living room.

“Nachum, your son is out of control, and I don’t have the patience for his games today. Explain to him that it wasn’t easy for me to make him breakfast. I was awake all last night with the most horrible pains in my stomach.”

Ima has a disease called indigestion,” said Nachum from the couch.

Ima has a disease called everything,” said Yonatan.

Miriam swore under her breath and turned away from them. Nachum took the opportunity to wink at his son and seize the bread, gobbling it down before his wife could notice what he’d done. He cringed at the taste and pretended to retch. Yonatan pounced on his father’s back. Nachum cried out disapprovingly, but the sincerity of his smile was at odds with his pleas for mercy. Despite a fair amount of panting, the two seemed to be enjoying themselves until Miriam hung up the telephone and said,

“Two peas in a pod! And after you hurt your back so badly last month too. Get out of here, Yonatan. Go play in your room.”

Yonatan released himself from his father’s grasp and scurried away, sticking out his tongue as he left.

“I don’t know why you let him climb all over you, Nachum. You know what Doctor Shatz told you about lifting heavy things.”

“The boy has had a hard month, Miriam.”

“So everyone keeps telling me. But he has to get over it. It’s all very sad, but it’s not like a blood relative died. And anyway, a tragedy is no excuse for him to act like an ungrateful brat all the time. The psychiatrist agrees with me.”

Nachum said something unintelligible and returned to the couch, reaching for the newspaper. Miriam returned to the kitchen.

“Your coffee won’t be all that appetizing this morning because there was nothing but dirty old grinds of Nescafe left in the cupboard. You should have bought a new can when you went to the store yesterday. I can’t be expected to do everything around this house by myself, you know.”

Nachum nodded half-heartedly.

“I hope you’re not expecting an elaborate breakfast,” she said, preparing his scrambled eggs. “I have more important work to do this morning.”


“I have seven more people to call about Yael’s engagement! Can you believe that our daughter is engaged?”


“You don’t seem to be very enthusiastic.”

“I’m not the one getting married.”

“Well, I’m just in shock. I thought that she would never stop breast feeding, and now she’s… engaged! It’s one of the biggest steps in life. Birth, marriage-”

“And death. Two down, and one to go.”

Miriam presented him with his breakfast tray.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just be happy for Yael. She’s marrying a Morgan.”

“I hope this doesn’t mean that we have to dine with them every week.”

“Why are you being so cynical about all of this, Nachum?”

For a moment, he said nothing. Then, deciding on the effort of explication against his better judgment, he folded the newspaper and said,

“I’m not sure that it’s healthy for a girl to marry her first boyfriend. And I don’t think that Yael’s old enough to know what she wants. She’s only twenty-one.”

Miriam could barely hear him from the kitchen.

“Whatever she wants, the Shachars will have to pay for it! We certainly can’t afford the kind of ceremony that they probably have in mind.”

“I said that she’s too young to get married!” he yelled over the sound of running water.

“Actually, she’s exactly the age we were when we got married!”

Nachum wrinkled his brow and resumed his morning reading.

“Can you believe that Shas is in the news again, Miriam? It’s just disgusting. Sometimes I feel like we’re living in the Middle Ages.”

“I’m worried about the menu for the wedding. I wonder what kinds of delicacies the Shachars are expecting us to feed their rich friends.”

“Never mind the Shachars. The wedding will be paid for… Do you think that Israel has always been like this?”

Miriam reentered the living room, drying her hands on her sleeves.

“What do you mean?”

“Was this damned country always so… I don’t know. I can’t put my finger on the word.”

“Leave politics to the politicians. There’s no use dwelling on what you can’t change.”

“We didn’t think so when we were younger.”

“No, I guess we didn’t.”

“I thought that I would take this country by storm— be a great musician whose opinion mattered…”

“Oh, please!”

“Don’t laugh at me! I was so ambitious back then, so opinionated. I had confidence. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind.”

“Back then?”

“I meant it more back then, before I realized that no one was very interested in what I had to say… you know, I probably couldn’t find my old guitar in the attic even if I tried.”

“Never mind all that. Are you ready for work?”

Nachum smiled bitterly at Miriam’s response. With a wife, three children, a steady job in a factory, and a house in the suburbs, sometimes his only comforts in life were little confirmations of his jadedness. He spoke only to be contradicted, and by and by, even the novelty of shocking his audience was blunted by their unwillingness to hear him out. Caught up in such thoughts, he paid little attention to the activity of his right elbow, and inadvertently spilled his drink over the coffee table.

“Oh, Nachum… Never mind, don’t touch it! Look what you did to my mother’s table. Your head is in the clouds this morning.”

Nachum looked at her closely as she began to clean the mess. She was hunched over the table and wildly scrubbing it, crouched on all fours and heaving back and forth. He thought to himself that she looked less like a woman than some ungainly beast of burden.

Yael now entered into the living room dressed in a cotton pink bathrobe. Accustomed to being ignored, she walked to the kitchen table with a look of imperial contempt on her face, but was surprised by the unexpected image of her mother rushing forward to welcome her.

Boker tov, Yael!” said Miriam, putting away her coffee-soaked towel and presenting her daughter with a bowl of Turkish salad.

Boker tov yourself,” she answered, affecting nonchalance but taken off-guard.

“You’re up early today. I was hoping that you would be. I made you your favorite breakfast. Eat it quickly! There’s a lot to do today.”

“Is there?”

“From now on nothing will be the same. You won’t have a minute to yourself anymore. We have to start thinking about the arrangements. You said so yourself last night!”

Yael looked at her mother warily.

“I always thought that you were against my leaving home.”

“Don’t be so naïve, Yael. I’m thrilled for you.”

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Of course not! This is a wonderful opportunity for you. Now tell me, are you planning on doing anything special with Shlomie today?”

“Why? Has he called here already?”

“No, not yet.”

“Don’t worry,” laughed Yael between bites of her salad, “He’ll call soon enough. He can’t go a day without talking to me.”

“Isn’t that wonderful? I’m so excited for you, Yael!”

“What’s wrong with you, Ima?”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re talking so strangely. You really don’t mind my leaving home?”

“Darling, you can’t stay home forever. Oh, I admit that I was a little bit sad about it this morning, but everything will turn out for the best. Your father and I are so proud of you. Aren’t we, Nachum?”

“Err,” he replied.

“Really, Ima?”

“Yes, really, Yael.”

“I didn’t expect you to be so supportive!”

“We are, honey. We are.”

“And you’ll be willing to help me pay for it?”

“Well,” said Miriam, her voice somewhat less enthusiastic, “your father and I will be happy to help in part, but I think it’s only right that the Shachars fit most of the bill. They’re much better off than we are, you know, and these sorts of things are expensive.”

Yael rose from the table.

“I knew that you were being facetious with me. Well, I don’t care what you say, Ima. I’m twenty-one years old now and can do whatever I want. It’s my life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“If you don’t want to pay for my nursing school, I’ll find another way to enroll without your help. I’ll use what’s left of the money that Safta set aside for me.”

“Nursing school?”

“I’ll start training at Tel Ha Shomer whether you like it or not!”

“What are you talking about? There are more important things to think about right now than nursing school.”

“Like what, I wonder?”

“Like what? Like Shlomie Shachar’s proposal! Could you believe it when he asked you to marry him?”


“It was a real birthday surprise, then.”

“I told him again and again that I didn’t want to marry him, but he just wouldn’t listen to me.”

“There’s persistence for you!”

“More like idiot stubbornness.”

“Excuse me?”

“It’s like nothing gets through that thick head of his.”

“That’s no way to speak about your future husband, Yael. Trust me, wait until after you’re married to insult him.”

Yael shuddered.

Ima, did you think that I accepted Shlomie’s proposal?”

“Of course.”

“But I didn’t!”

“Very funny.”

“I’m not joking. I told him hundreds of times that I didn’t even want to consider getting married before I became a professional nurse, but he refused to listen to me. And it was such an awful proposal too. He did nothing but insult me after I said no to him.”

“What are you trying to tell me, Yael?”

“Oh Ima!”

For a moment, Miriam stood absolutely silent and motionless. That soon changed.

“This is terrible! I called everybody in the family to say you that were engaged!”

“Well, who told you to do that?”

“How could you be so stupid?”


“The Shachars are so rich!”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“You have no idea how the world works, do you? Money is the single most important thing on Earth!”

“That’s a wonderful thing to say, Ima. How profound.”

“Never mind about being profound. What are we, philosophers? Be real Yael. Do you know what it would have been like to live without worrying about bills and debts and… oh Yael, you’re an idiot!”


“Never, never, never, will have another chance like this! Never! How could you reject Abraham Morgan’s son? Who do you think you are? Oh, it feels like the world is ending.”

“Stop being ridiculous and overdramatic. I want to go to nursing school.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I wouldn’t have gone if I’d married him. I want to make my own way in the world without being dependent on a man. The marriage would have always felt unequal, and like I was secretly in his debt. And besides, I’m not in love with Shlomie.”

“What sort of fairy tale world are you living in? You can learn to love somebody if you live with him for long enough!”

“I want to live alone.”

“But you have all of your life to live alone! Now is the time to get married!”

“I don’t want to get married!”

“Do you want to die an old maid like your aunt Marianna? Is that it?”

“Come on, Ima!”

“Can I be blunt with you?”

“Go ahead.”

“You aren’t particularly pretty or particularly smart or particularly interesting as a human being, and that boy was about the only thing that you had going for you. His infatuation was like a blessing. You’ve just ruined your best chance at happiness in life. And after I called everyone to tell them that you were engaged…”

Yael closed her eyes, brought her hands to her temples, and howled.

“Be quiet! You’ll wake up your brothers.”

“Enough is enough, Ima! I don’t want to hear another word from you! I’m going to nursing school now! Not in September, but now. I’ll take summer courses at Ramat Aviv and live at Safta’s until then. I swear to God that I’ll never spend another night in this house of hell ever again.”

Yael raised her plate of salad and, after a moment of hesitation, dashed it to the floor. Then she ran out of the kitchen.

“You didn’t have to be so cruel to her,” said Nachum.

“I was telling her the truth.”

“No, Miriam. Not that way. Not like that. Poor girl.”

Awakened by the noise, Raz and Yonatan rushed out of their bedrooms and found their mother standing in a puddle of broken glass and vegetables. She began to quietly clear away the mess. Nachum shook his head and rose from the couch. He knocked on Yael’s door, but she wouldn’t answer. After a while, he gave up. He collected his car keys and drove to the factory.

In the Presence of Strangers: Party Embers (Chapter IV)


It was eleven-thirty in Kefar Sava. Although not yet midnight, the town’s energies were depleted, and the place seemed little better than a maze of abandoned parks and alleyways. The portly blue and white balloons floating over the gate of 10 Anna Frank Street had begun to sag. But the party progressing inside wasn’t over just yet.

Much to his chagrin, Yonatan had been packed off to bed. He was busily eavesdropping with his ear to the door by the time that Miriam finished serving her guests Bavarian cream birthday cake. Tziporah, Abraham and Shlomie Shachar had all arrived fashionably late, considerably delaying the evening’s festivities. But by that hour, gifts had been unwrapped, dinners eaten, and tongues loosened by the sweetness of supermarket wine.

Tziporah held her breath for a moment in a show of refined indignation. She was relating a grievous story about how El Al had seated her apart from her husband on their recent trip to Thailand. What did she care if the plane was overbooked and they’d only arrived one hour before the flight instead of the customary three? Their tickets were for business class seats!

“I’m telling you, Miriam,” she said decisively, “that we will never, never fly El Al again. Their stewardesses are so unhelpful. I don’t know where they find them these days. They used to be so gracious and polite, but interacting with them now is like torture.”

“Where did they end up seating you?”

“Next to some Russians who got an upgrade. The whole plane was full of them. And the cow sitting next to me refused to switch seats with Abraham.”

“How do you tell the difference between a Chinese person and a Russian?” asked Shlomie excitedly.

“I don’t know, how?” said Yael after an uncomfortable pause, preemptively rolling her eyes.

“One has yellow skin, and the other has yellow teeth! Get it?”

Everyone forced themselves to laugh.

“In my day,” chimed Gisela from her seat beside the television, “when a Jew came to Israel he was an Israeli, and that was that. But times have changed. I think that the Russians are ruining this country.”

“Oh Ima, enough!”

“I mean what I say, Nachum. They aren’t conforming to the culture here. In fact, they’re actively changing it for the worse. Drunk driving, prostitution, the mafia… Did you know that I found a burglar in my apartment last month?”


“It’s true, Tziporah. I found him in the kitchen when I came home from the theater. He darted straight out the door when I screamed for help. The rat stole every bit of jewelry in the house. He even took my wedding ring. Damned Cossack.”

“Russians have been in Israel since the foundation of the country, Safta,” said Yael.

“Yes, my dear. But they were a totally different breed of Russians,” said Tziporah.

“Trust me, most of these newcomers aren’t even Jewish,” said Gisela, “Leftists have ruined this country, letting the Goy invade us. My stomach turns every time I walk through Tel Aviv these days.”

“Please, Ima! You don’t know how hateful and close-minded you sound. It makes me sick.”

“Insult me all you want, but Israel is meant to be the homeland of the Jews, and not the unemployment office of East Asia and the Balkans. We don’t need diversity here. Leave that to America, where everyone is a mongrel.”

“Well, I’m sure that El Al’s rudeness just ruined your flight,” said Miriam. “Personally, I haven’t been overseas myself in years.”

“If you don’t count Tel Aviv,” interjected Shlomie. “Get it? Tel Aviv has so many Russians in it these days, it seems like a foreign country!”

“To be honest, I’ve never really enjoyed traveling very much,” continued Miriam after a courteous nod. “I have a pretty sensitive stomach, and I’m claustrophobic too. A crowded airplane cabin is hardly my ideal place to take a seat.”

“Why don’t you take motion-sickness pills?” said Tziporah. “You shouldn’t trap yourself in this house. You’ll regret it when you’re older. Right, Abraham?”


Abraham Shachar spoke little and only with great difficulty. Any spark of liveliness or humor that he once possessed vanished long ago when he lost his entire family in the Second World War. Thanks to the shadow that Terezin cast upon his existence, he enjoyed nothing better than being left alone, and dreaded nothing more than polite conversation.

“I could never swallow pills,” protested Miriam, stroking her own head. “I was just telling my doctor the other day that the only way I can take medicine is in liquid form. If I took motion sickness pills, I would have to break up the tablets and mix them with water, and I’m sure that the taste would make me sick to my stomach.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Tziporah. “Motion sickness pills would not nauseate you! There are so many wonderful places to visit. Eastern Europe is all the rage these days. In fact, we’ll be visiting Prague this February. You should join us.”

“Well isn’t that a kind offer. Isn’t that a generous offer, Nachum?”

“Are they offering to pay for us?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Well, it’s a nice thought, Tziporah, but we will have to pass. I couldn’t stand the flight. I get so nervous in large crowds and closed spaces that I just want to crawl out of my skin. It horrifies me to give up control over my life to a captain I’ve never even met. I mean, how do I know that he’s not drunk or asleep at the wheel? Man wasn’t designed by evolution to be hurled through the sky in metal boxes. Granted, Nachum and I almost took a flight to Eilat a couple of years ago for a wedding, but we had to back out at the last minute. My doctor, Dr. Shatz… Dr. Shatz is a very sympathetic man, you know… he actually recommended that I take Valium to calm myself down. But I explained to him that just the idea of gagging on pills makes me-”

“Are you enjoying your birthday party, Yael?” asked Tziporah.

“Yes, thank you.”

“I see that my son didn’t bring you a present.”

“That will come later,” said Shlomie, slapping her back.

“You know, Yael,” said Tziporah, “the time has really come for you to visit our summer house in the Galilee by the Mount of Beatitudes. I can’t believe that you’ve been dating Shlomie for two years now and have never made the trip. We have a movie theater and a bowling alley and two swimming pools there and…well, everything that you could possibly dream of in a house! I personally prefer our comfortable little apartment in Savyon, but it’s nice to have a retreat from the real world once in a while. When Abraham retires I’m sure that we’ll be spending more time up north.”

“I’m not planning on retiring any time soon,” said Abraham.

“Oh no, not yet of course,” said Tziporah. “But the time will come when Shlomie will inherit the family business and the older generation will have to step aside.”

“So we’re the older generation now, are we?” laughed Nachum. He had found it expedient to ignore the bulk of the evening’s conversation, but couldn’t resist commenting on this latest revelation.

“Watch what you say,” said Gisela with mock indignation. “If you’re, old, then what am I? A fossil?”

Everyone smiled.

“You know, the younger generation of Israel faces new challenges every day,” began Yael hopefully. She had seen a special segment of the evening news focusing on the challenges of Israeli youth and was eager to repeat its observations as her own. But before she could continue, Abraham said,

“The younger generation of Israel doesn’t even know what challenges are,” and the room fell into an awkward silence again.

“Well, that was certainly true a year or two ago,” said Tziporah at last, “but this country isn’t such a naïve place anymore. I’m afraid that this next generation of Israelis has some very hard lessons to learn.”

“They should be grateful for those lessons,” said Gisela. “My generation didn’t create the Jewish state by surrendering to our enemies at every turn whenever they attacked us without provocation. Maybe an awakening to our neighbor’s hatred of us is exactly what this complacent generation needs. We Jews have nothing to preserve us but each other.”

“And American money,” added Nachum under his breath.

“Don’t even mention America to me,” said Gisela. “There is anti-Semitism everywhere. Everyone seems to be against us these days, though I don’t understand why. Does the world expect us to sit back and let the Palestinians massacre us? These suicide bombings are like a nightmare. How is it anyone’s business what we do to defend ourselves?”

“It’s terrible to hear you carry on that way,” said Nachum. “We were close to peace once, but the idiots in our government botched it up for everyone. And now we all talk as if-”

“It wasn’t the idiots in our government who botched it up,” said Shlomie. “It was that damned Arafat. It’s all his fault. He refused to make peace.”

“But what difference does it make whose fault it was? You don’t think that most of the Arabs want it to end as much as we do?”

“No,” said Abraham suddenly and with great conviction. “Most of them detest us with a kind of intensity that you’ll never understand. And there are fanatics among them who would kill every one of us without a thought. We must fight to survive. And so we will.”

“You can leave that to me!” interjected Shlomie happily. “As long as we have a strong army, Israel will be just fine.”

“But the Palestinians aren’t necessarily all against us,” said Yael. “It’s only the extremists who are causing all the trouble.”

“That’s not true,” said Gisela. “They are all against us. And I don’t just mean the Palestinians, but the Arabs who live in Israel too.”

“That kind of attitude is ridiculous, Ima, and will only alienate the Israeli Arabs.”

“It’s gotten so late!” said Miriam above the cacophony. “More coffee, anybody? I can’t touch it after seven o’clock myself, or I’ll lie tossing in bed until the sun comes up. And when I’ve gone without sleep, my head-”

“You are absolutely wrong, Nachum,” said Gisela. “And frankly, I’m ashamed of your unpatriotic attitude. Jerusalem belongs to us, us. It’s in the Bible, for God’s sake. The city isn’t even mentioned in the Koran! All this trouble began when Sharon visited the Temple Mount and the Arabs started blowing themselves up over it— and even after we offered them practically every speck of land that they demanded at Camp David, I might add. Men like you and that fool Barak tried to give them peace. Well, they showed us exactly what they thought about that alternative when they began to riot in the streets and contrive the murder of innocent civilians. And while our men were scrambling to defend the country, the Israeli Arabs proved their loyalty by protesting against us and giving the terrorists secret aid. They at least have national solidarity, and would destroy us with it.”

“Well, that may be going a bit too far,” said Tziporah, turning to her husband. “The rotten apples ruin it for all of them, but the Palestinians aren’t all bad. In fact, we once had a house maid from Qalqilya who was a very charming girl. Do you remember her, Abraham? She was so intelligent. Too young to be a maid!”

“You don’t still keep her, do you?” asked Gisela.

“Of course not. We let her go before Sharon was even elected. But she had a hard life. Her mother was dead and her father wanted her to marry her own cousin. At least, I think that’s how the story went. Anyway, the girl refused, so he slammed a door on her arm and broke it as punishment for disobeying him. She had no one in the world to help her, poor thing. God only knows what happened to her after we fired her. We gave her a lifetime’s worth of free coupons to eat at our restaurants the last time we saw her.”

“How generous,” muttered Nachum.

“At any rate,” continued Tziporah, “There’s no use complaining. You can’t help your birth. But we Jews are lucky enough to have good blood and should stick together in dangerous times.”

“How true that is,” said Gisela, eyeing her son accusingly. “But I tell you, until we build a wall separating us from the Arabs, and the Arabs from each other, these murders will never end and there will be no final solution to the troubles of this country.”

“The movement to build one is gaining steam,” said Tziporah.

“The sooner the better. Nothing else will put a stop to these suicide bombings, unless we do something like start executing the families of the terrorists. That’d fix the problem quickly enough.”

“That is a shameful thought, Gisela,” said Miriam. “But really, I don’t like to dwell on politics. Let’s talk about something else.”

“When I think about all of those children blown up earlier this month in cold blood at the Dolphinarium, it makes me want to cry.”

“Let’s not discuss it, Ima,” said Nachum. “It’s a very painful subject in this house.”

Everyone was silent.

“Well Abraham,” said Tziporah, “Yala! It’s getting late. It’s time to go home. You have work tomorrow.”

Ima, wait!” cried Shlomie, rising suddenly from the couch. “Don’t leave just yet. I wanted to talk to Yael outside for a minute, if I could. I won’t be very long. I’ll follow you home in the jeep.”

Miriam and Tziporah shared a knowing glance.

“Well,” said Tziporah, “I guess one more cup of coffee wouldn’t hurt. But hurry up, you two. It’s getting late. Your father is getting tired.”

“I won’t take too long!” said Shlomie, seizing Yael’s hand and practically dragging her onto the porch.

In the meanwhile, Raz was just returning from Netanya. His journey back to Kefar Sava had not been an easy one. He’d been forced to hitchhike with two different drivers and trek three kilometers before returning home. Nevertheless, although his T-shirt was damp and his feet were blistered, the night had turned out unexpectedly well. Yasmine had agreed to go with him on a date to Tel Aviv, and he could hardly wait. He promised himself that he wouldn’t make the same mistake with her as he had with Ilana. His plan was to discover and harp subconsciously on Yasmine’s imperfections before he was tied down to her. Then he would sleep with her and move on to another girl, and then to another one after that. He was determined to teach himself that women were expendable, and that it was possible to date casually without getting imprisoned in a relationship. The thought of it thrilled him. But his smile soon withered at the sight of Shlomie and his sister standing on the front porch. There was no way to avoid meeting them.

“Raz, habibi, how’s it going?” called Shlomie. “You missed your sister’s birthday party!” He slapped Raz’s back with such playful violence that he nearly pushed him over.

“Hello Shlomie,” said Raz quietly. “Still in the army?”

“Same old, same old. Where’d you go, to the beach?”

“Yes. To one of your father’s restaurants, actually.”

“Great. The girls down there have great taste in clothes, don’t they?”

“It’s hard to tell in the middle of the night, but I guess so.”

“There are two things that I look for in a woman and they’re easy to find at the beach. Know what they are?”

“Not really.”

“Her tits! Get it?”

“Very funny,” snapped Yael.

“I could have come with you in my jeep,” Shlomie continued enthusiastically. “There’s plenty of room in the back seat, if you know what I mean.”

Raz chuckled very awkwardly and then turned to his sister.

“Did you have a nice party?”

“You look like you swam here from Netanya.”

“It’s just sweat. I had some bad luck getting home. Nothing serious. Well, OK! Have a good night!”

He escaped.

Yael was sorry to see him go. She didn’t particularly enjoy her brother’s company, but preferred it to being left alone with Shlomie that night. Considering her sense of dread, she might have insisted that they return indoors. But it was a beautiful night, and the breeze was pregnant with the scent of honeysuckle. Not to be outdone by nature, Shlomie lit a cigarette and supplied the air with the perfume of tar. He snorted contentedly as he placed his right hand on Yael’s shoulder, nearly elbowing her nose every time he crossed her face to take a new puff.

“Well, Yael, happy birthday. Another year’s gone by! And by the way, in case you were wondering, I really didn’t forget about your present.”

“Really, Shlomie?”

“When should we tell your parents about the wedding?”

“Whose wedding?”

“Ours! Happy birthday!”

Yael looked to the ground.

“Just keep in mind that once our mothers know about this, we won’t hear the end of it until we set a date. Personally, I wouldn’t care if we said to hell with it and sailed off to Cyprus, but you know how old fashioned our parents can be.”

He laughed nervously. Yael lifted his arm from her shoulder.

“That’s very sweet of you, Shlomie, but you know that I can’t accept this proposal.”

The color drained from his face.

“I’m doing this all wrong. I’m sorry. Are you angry that I don’t have a ring? I figured it would be better for you to help me pick one out instead of buying one that you didn’t really want.”

“What possessed you to propose to me?”

“I… I figured that it was time to take the plunge. There’s only so long that you can wait to do this sort of thing, and besides, you’ve earned it.”

“Excuse me? What a moron you are, Shlomie.”

“Why are you being so mean to me?” He began to pant and lick his lips uncontrollably, as always when he felt threatened.

“What do you mean I’ve earned it?”

“Well, you’ve stuck by me for two years. That shows commitment. You can’t say that this surprised you. Don’t you want to marry me?”

“No, I don’t want to marry you. You know that I don’t want to marry anybody. We’ve talked about this before.”

“What are you, then? A lesbian?”

“For God’s sake, I’m only twenty-one years old! I told you that I want to go to nursing school. Marriage is the last thing that I need holding me back right now. I don’t want to be a sellout and a hypocrite like my friend Avital, who gave up on all her aspirations to become the slave of some chauvinist asshole. Besides, this isn’t even a proper proposal. Like you said, you don’t even have a ring.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. You’ve never seen my house in the Galilee.”

“You mean your parents’ house in the Galilee. If memory serves, you live in a little army bunker.”

“That house will be mine soon enough. We could go there whenever we wanted. And my mother said she’d let us live in their extra apartment in Herzliya once we got married.”

“How romantic. Do you think that she might let us celebrate our honeymoon in the pantry?”

“Look who’s talking. You live with your parents now.”

“That’s only temporary. I’ll be on my own soon enough. Once I go to nursing school-”

“Nobody’s stopping you from going to nursing school! That has nothing to do with anything!”

“Leave me alone. If you only knew how to treat a woman properly-”

“I’ve treated you too well!” snarled Shlomie. “If I decided that I wanted to marry you, I should have left you. You’d have come crawling to me on your knees, begging and pleading for me to take you back again. But maybe I wouldn’t be available anymore.”

“Have you ever known me to be the jealous type? If you want to be with somebody else because I won’t marry you, be my guest.”

“You say those kinds of things now, but I know you better than you know yourself. Trust me, you’re just like any other woman.”

“It looks like you’re the only one who’s begging and pleading tonight, Shlomie. Shalom. I’m going inside.”

Conscious of the fact that he was about to break down in tears, Shlomie heaved his cigarette into the rose bushes and scrambled toward his car. Yael moved to follow him from force of habit, but stopped herself. Soon, except for the snaps of mosquitoes being electrocuted by the neighbor’s insect repeller and the distant chorus of crickets, the night was totally silent. Yael didn’t plan on being so hard on Shlomie, but his obstinacy had left her with little choice. Still, what did it matter what she said to him that night? He would recover from her rejection soon enough and come back to her, but would think twice in the future about proposing to her and taking it for granted that she would accept. She was twenty-one years old and at the prime of her life. She had the right to be selective.

In the Presence of Strangers: First Impressions (Chapter III)


No film or snapshot can capture the full effect of an Eastern Mediterranean sunset. The sun does not drift so much as plunge into the sea, hurdling like an overripe fruit into the arms of the wilting horizon. Daylight is harsh in the Middle East, and twilight is a voraciously awaited hour when travelers wary of the midday sun flock to the sea in droves and set up camp along the shoreline. Lifeguards bellow out warnings as they desert their posts for the night. Once they leave, little children leap into the waves with their parents looking on from distant seaside cafes, blissfully unaware that a sudden undercurrent might make their little ones a headline in the morning newspaper.

Off the coast of Netanya, there is a long section of the shoreline crowded with an assortment of green umbrellas, plastic seats, and picnic tables. The area belongs to the Good Morgan Restaurant, a popular beachside cafe famous for the quality of its greased falafel balls. On the evening of June 23rd, Raz was sitting at one of its tables rocking his seat back and forth in an effort to discover how far he could push the chair without falling over. He was paying little attention to Ofir Sasover, who was pontificating at the head of the table. Ilana sat next to Raz feigning interest in her friend’s conversation with an admirable number of sympathetic grunts. At the other end of the table, Nathan Sela was hunched over an ashtray with his mouth half open.

“I don’t understand why Gutman insisted on coming to this restaurant,” said Ofir. “The beach is pretty gross these days. And there are too many kids here. Honestly, this place is giving me a headache.”

“It’s all good,” mumbled Nathan before breaking off into peals of laughter.

“You’re right, Ofir,” said Ilana. “The summer is no time to come to the beach. It’s too hectic here this time of year.”

“That’s to say the least of it. This place is so noisy and unhygienic and sandy. Being here is like a punishment.”

“Of course it’s sandy— it’s the beach for God’s sake! I thought that it would be fun to eat here with Ilana. My sister is dating the owner’s son, and he promised that he’d fix the bill for us. I didn’t know that you’d be coming with us. But anyway, it’s a beautiful night and it doesn’t hurt to be outside for a little while, right?”

“I’m not surprised that you disagree with me, Gutman. It seems like you always disagree with everyone about everything. You’re a natural contrarian.”

“What can I say? I can’t help myself. I like being the center of attention. Maybe I have an inferiority complex.”

“You know,” said Ilana, “when you laugh at your own jokes, it probably means that they’re not very funny.”

“Actually, I’m only trying to stay awake, and it isn’t always so easy in this company.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir. I promise, Raz doesn’t mean anything that he says. Not really.”

“Of course he doesn’t,” said Ofir. “That’s why it’s impossible to get seriously offended by him. I only wish that you would be less touchy, Gutman. There’s a difference between being witty and being insulting.”

Raz opened his mouth to respond, but Ilana lurched forward and whispered into his ear.

“Please don’t embarrass me in front of Ofir tonight. You know how much I hate it when you get into arguments with him. Just let him talk.”

“But he’s done nothing but complain about the restaurant all night!”

“Leave him alone.”

Raz scowled. When he was alone with Ilana, she would at least provide him free rein to voice his opinions without unwelcome interruption. But in the presence of strangers, her silence would become oppressive, and every glance in his direction seemed quietly censorious. Above all things, he hated to be reproached, and even the most trivial criticism would have to come across as slightly qualified praise if it was to have any effect on him beyond inducing anger. Criticism implied condescension, and who was Ilana Fischer to look down on him? As for Ofir, he was so pompous that whenever he talked, Raz harbored a secret urge to heave the nearest available beverage into his face.

“Why don’t you tell us a joke, Raz?” suggested Ilana as Ofir paused speaking to cough into a napkin. “Didn’t you know a funny story about a little old woman who couldn’t cook?”

“Are you talking about your mother?”

“I told you, don’t try to be funny. Now, tell us that joke.”

“Isn’t that a contradiction?”

“You know what I mean. You’re not the best improviser. But you’re better when you’re rehearsed. Well?”

“I don’t remember how it goes.”

She stroked his chin with quasi-maternal affection.

“Don’t be such a grouch. Of course you remember it. One night, an old man was sitting with his wife in the kitchen, when-”

“That’s not right. You’re ruining the punch line. This is how it goes. One night, an old man was lying in bed with his wife. She told him, ‘You never bring me anywhere. Take me someplace that I’ve never been.’ So he said to her-”

“Excuse me,” said Ofir. “I can’t hear a word. My head is pounding. I don’t understand why there are kids in the water so late at night! It’s very annoying, and it’s dangerous too.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana gravely. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“No. It’s not your fault. Their parents are to blame. This water isn’t even fit for swimming. I may not be a marine biologist, but I think that the number of jellyfish in the Mediterranean Sea has tripled over the past three years.”

Raz inhaled and exhaled deeply as Ofir began to make lyrical assertions about the breeding patterns of cnidarians. He hadn’t always been so impatient with Ilana’s friends. But their passive aggressive tactics infuriated him to the point of madness, and Ilana seemed to relish playing the martyr whenever he worked up the energy to confront her about the problem.

“Of course,” continued Ofir obliviously, “jellyfish, children and polluted sea foam are only the least of the Mediterranean’s problems. I could go on and on about the impact of climate change and El Nino.

“As I have no doubt you will,” said Raz. Ilana twisted her face into a grimace, but Raz couldn’t care less. If she insisted on subjecting him to her friends’ company and insulting him in front of them, then he would insist on punishing her for the effort. He began to twiddle his thumbs in an effort to broadcast his boredom. He wanted to go home.

A woman who moved like a dancer presently emerged from the restaurant. She was dressed in faded but tasteful clothing and carried a Louis Vuitton handbag that had seen better days. Although it was dark, her features were clear enough in the moonlight. Her face was charismatic rather than beautiful. Her complexion was very dark. She was obviously Sephardic, Moroccan perhaps, and shorter than she might have been. Her eyes were enormous, round and lively as a newborn’s and crowned with a forest of jet lashes. Raz couldn’t stop himself from staring at her. Unfortunately, when she reached the table, he noticed that the bridge of her nose was a millimeter too wide, and the perfection of his first impression was shattered. Somehow, though, the effect only made him want to study her face more closely.

“You there!” called Ofir. “Hello? We’ve been waiting to order for over fifteen minutes now. Will you get on with it, please? What are you waiting for?”

The girl wrinkled her brow and, after a pause, said in a voice more reminiscent of song than speech,

“I apologize for my gross incompetence.”

Although Ofir had originally hoped to frighten her by threatening not to leave a tip, he decided to put aside his complaints for the moment.

“I’ll have a helping of Turkish salad,” he said, “but hold the onions. I’ll also order your bolognaise, but tell the chef not to use too much meat. And bring me a bottle of Golani, and some pita bread with hummus. Well, that’s all!”

Ofir would have dispatched her to the kitchen then and there had not an angry glance from Raz reminded him that there were others at the table waiting to eat. Once they had all ordered their meals, the girl accurately repeated their requests without even having written them down, then walked back toward the restaurant. She seemed to shoot Raz a wink as she left, or perhaps had gotten sand in her eye.

“What was I just saying before we ordered… I was talking about sea pollution, wasn’t I? But Israel has bigger problems than dirty beaches. And I’m not just talking about the intifada. I may not know much about economics, but I’m sure that I don’t agree with what’s going on now in this country at all. Politicians need to consider Marxism more seriously when they formulate national policy.”

“Check out the patterns on this tablecloth,” said Nathan suddenly. “They’re sort of trippy, aren’t they?”

Ofir nodded his head as if someone had agreed with him and began to speak with even greater conviction than before.

“Yes, crackpots have certainly ruined modern economics. The days of pioneers and kibbutzim are history. There’s no appreciation anymore for the importance of getting rid of private property in the long term. And private property is the source of all evil.”

“Are you sure about that, Ofir? I actually think that private property helps human progress. I mean, the hope of getting rich motivates inventors. I think that Marx-”

“Oh boy, another argument,” said Ofir. “Here we go! Redn is zilber, sfaigen is gold.”[1]

“What does that mean?”

“It’s an example of Jewish wit, and you should take it to heart.”

“Please, please,” whispered Ilana. “Why don’t you listen to Ofir instead of arguing with him? You might learn something. He was at the top of our class, you know. What kind of grades did you make senior year?”

“I don’t mean to argue just for the sake of arguing,” said Raz quietly. “Look, to be honest with you Ilana, maybe I’ve been a little bit unfriendly tonight. I have the maturity to understand that, and I’m sorry. It’s just that this constant criticism is overpowering me. Whenever I express an independent thought, it seems like all of you-”

“I really need an Acamol,” interrupted Ofir. “I mean, my head is killing me. Please don’t talk right now.”

“I’m sorry,” squeaked Ilana. “Is there anything that I can do for you?”

“I don’t think so. When is that waitress going to be back with our food?”

“Excuse me,” snapped Raz. “But I was in the middle of saying something.”

“Relax, habibi,” said Nathan. “You don’t need to shout.”

“Don’t be rude, Raz,” said Ilana, patting his chin.

“But you’re the ones being rude! And stop infantilizing me, for God’s sake! Stop touching my face!”

“You’re making a fool out of yourself, Raz.”

With that, Raz threw down his napkin and prepared to cause a scene. But the sight of tears in Ilana’s eyes induced him to stop himself. He crossed his arms, dripping with angst. Encountering no further opposition, Ofir launched into a speech about why it would be better to replace Arabic language classes with additional classes in biblical studies in all schools. Although he was an atheist, he explained, these kinds of courses would enhance Israeli nationalism. The monologue lasted for ten minutes, and he kept repeating the phrase “ardent nationalist” as a verbal crutch. Raz counted it six times.

They noticed the woman with the beautiful eyes coming toward their table again carrying a tray of food. To Ofir’s dismay, she walked right past him.

“You there, waitress! Excuse me! You forgot our food.”

She brought her hand to her hair without turning her head.

“Excuse me?”

“I said that you forgot our food. We’ve been waiting for over a half hour for it now. And from what I can see on your tray, you’ve gotten our orders all wrong. I didn’t even order falafel! Leave the pita bread here, but take the rest away.”

“Have you really been waiting all this time for your food? No wonder your friend has fallen asleep.”

“That’s right,” said Ofir, glancing at Nathan. “This place might not be the Ritz, but there’s a certain lowest common denominator of professionalism to be expected anywhere. I swear, when I see this sort of incompetence, it almost makes me regret being such an ardent socialist.”

“You’re an ardent socialist, huh?”

“Yes, I’m an ardent socialist,” he answered, still eyeing the food, “Just as much as I’m an ardent nationalist.”

“Then you’re the first Nazi I’ve ever met.”

“Very funny! Just give me my food.”

“But I’m not your waitress. In fact, I’m not a waitress at all. You’re supposed to order at the counter, fool. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think that my falafel balls are getting cold. Good night.”

She shook a ringlet of ebony hair from her brow and disappeared into the crowd. Raz roared with laugher.

“What do you think about that? We’ve all been waiting for nothing! All of Ofir’s commands were wasted on a stranger.”

“I’m sorry, Ofir,” said Ilana. “That girl was rude to lead us on the way she did about who she was. Raz, would you please stop rocking your chair back and forth like that? You’re like a child.”

By this time, Raz was through festering silently.

“You’re right, Ilana. That girl was very rude. But do you know what else is rude? Bitching at someone in public all the time. It’s a terrible thing to do. It’s almost as bad as talking on and on without end.”

“I can’t believe how immature you are,” said Ilana. “When are you going to grow up?”

“You can go to hell! God knows you’ve done nothing but critique me since we left Kefar Sava.”

“You’re causing a scene,” she said in a voice that wavered between being pleading and menacing. “Why are you always overreacting to everything?”

The lamp light again reflected tears on her cheeks. Raz did his best to ignore them, but his surge of self-confidence once more gave way to guilt. Arguments were usually secretly a little bit entertaining to him so long as they were going on, but tended to disgust him when they were concluded. After an awkward pause, he decided on one last attempt to heal the table’s wounds.

“Well, everyone seems to be very quiet all of a sudden! If the beach is so terrible, why don’t we all go to Tira instead? I know a nice little restaurant there. What do you say?”

“Under no circumstances,” said Ofir. “You of all people would think of eating in an Arab town these days. Let’s just go back to Kefar Sava. I’m exhausted.”

“What’s wrong, Ofir? Do you have a problem with Arabs?”

“Don’t play games with me. Some things aren’t worth debating about.”

“But the people in Tira are Israeli Arabs.”

“It makes no difference. We’re at war, Raz.”

“I think that I’m going to be sick,” moaned Nathan.

Raz rose from the table, and the others followed him. They reached the minivan. Ofir lurched into the driver’s seat, and Ilana climbed into the seat beside him and opened the back door for Raz and Nathan. It was then that Raz turned his back on the company.

“I’d rather walk home, if you don’t mind!”

“What’s wrong now? Kefar Sava is forty minutes away! Why are you being so unreasonable all the time lately?”

“Never mind, Ilana. Don’t worry about it. Sit next to Ofir and drive home. I have no desire to see any more of you tonight, or ever again in my life, really.”

Ilana began to protest, but suddenly and uncharacteristically stopped herself. She was covered with sand, hungry, and humiliated. Humoring Raz would only encourage him. Maybe leaving him alone at the beach would teach him a lesson for making a fool out of her in front of her friends. Ofir began to drive away, and she didn’t stop him. No one in the car said a word. Eventually, she turned the radio to the most beautiful song that she could find and settled on an American ballad she couldn’t understand, except for a single line about heaven being overrated.

Secretly, though, she was not overly concerned. It was hardly the first time she had fought with Raz, and things always seemed to iron themselves out in a day or two. He was always ready to start an argument, but he never held grudges. Besides, making up with him was her favorite part of their relationship. Comforted by these considerations, she drove back toward Kefar Sava, engrossed in her own thoughts as Ofir offered comforting platitudes and Nathan clutched his stomach.

In the meantime, Raz jogged back to the beach. Although he was furious with Ilana for actually leaving without him and told himself that he would never forgive her, her absence made him euphoric. After some thought, he found himself wandering back into the restaurant and pretending to look for a misplaced credit card until he found the woman with the beautiful eyes sitting alone at a far table. The night had taken on a dreamlike quality, and he was in the mood for an adventure.

“Do you have a cigarette?” he asked in the most suave voice that he could muster up.

She answered without turning her head.

“I don’t smoke. Not cigarettes, anyway.”

“Neither do I.”

“I remember you,” she said very rapidly. “You were the boy who was sitting next to the windbag and the opiate addict. What’s your name?”


“And mine’s Yasmine. You’re not shy, are you, to come chasing after me with a ridiculous pickup line when I know you’re dating that girl with the whining voice?”

“What makes you think that it was a pickup line?”

“You asked me for a cigarette, but you said you’re not a smoker. It doesn’t take a Shylock to figure out what you want.”

“Excuse me?”

“Isn’t that the name of the English detective who smokes a pipe in all the old movies?”

Raz smiled and (having taken another look at the bridge of her nose and decided that its size was an annoyance to be endured) said,

“It’s Sherlock. And he’s not just a movie character. There are books about him too. Shylock is someone totally different. He’s the Jew from The Merchant of Venice.

“Well, I wouldn’t know. To be honest, I’ve never been very interested in books.”


“I have no patience for them, and I’m not embarrassed to say so. I haven’t read a book in years, and I don’t know if I’ve ever honestly read one from cover to cover in my whole life. Well, I take that back. There are two exceptions, both in English. I once read this old children’s book about a rabbit who says goodnight to everything in his bedroom before he falls asleep. I wore it out when I was a kid. I wonder where it is now.”

“I think Goodnight Moon doesn’t exactly count as real literature.”

“Was that the name of the book? Do you know it?”

“Everybody knows it.”

“I never knew the title—the cover was ripped off of my copy. Anyway, I thought that it was brilliant.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“What a snob you are! For your information, I thought that it perfectly captured the feeling of what it’s like to be a little kid trying to fall asleep, staring at everything in the room until consciousness… evaporates.”

“Interesting choice of words there. Very poetic.”

“Thanks! I do my best. Anyway, the book used simple language, but it was unforgettable. And there was something comforting about reading the simple sentence patterns again and again. It was like a lullaby.”

“What was the other book that you read?”

Moby Dick. It was alright too in its own way, I guess. But it was endless.”

“Wow. I was expecting you to say Goldilocks and the Three Bears or something like that.”

“I mean, Moby Dick wasn’t my choice. My father would read me a chapter a night when I was very young. He used it to teach me English. There wasn’t a single interesting female character in it, so it suited his tastes perfectly.”

“I also read long books to learn better English. My grandfather and I read Gone with the Wind together. A chapter a day, whenever I would visit him.”

“I didn’t even realize it was a book. It’s my favorite movie.”

“Mine too!”


“Yes! Leigh and Gable are incredible. But the book is even better.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“It’s a close race. Anyway, your father and my grandfather both sound like patient men. We probably owe them a lot. More than we realize, I bet.”

She laughed bitterly in response to that. Then she said, “Well anyway, like I said, I’m no great reader. I guess that I enjoy happiness and pleasure too much. I might as well watch television or shop in my free time.”

“To tell you the truth, some of the most incredible moments in my life were spent reading books. There’s no better way to escape from the world for a while, or from yourself. Would you mind if I sat down?”

“What about your friends?”

“They’re not really my friends. And anyway, they’re gone now. I’m alone.”

“You can sit here if you want to, but I was really just about to leave.”

She pushed back her chair, but he stopped her gently with his hand and spoke in a voice that he hardly recognized as his own.

“Maybe I can buy you a coffee or something?”

“You’re out of luck, because I don’t drink coffee.”

“And neither do I! God, Yasmine, who would have thought that two strangers would have so much in common?”

There was an awkward silence. Then, spontaneously, they both produced an identical sigh at exactly the same moment. They laughed, and Raz took this as an invitation to join her. Eventually, he would have to find a way back to Kefar Sava, but for the moment, he didn’t want to think about the details. Maybe the evening wouldn’t turn out so badly after all.

[1] Speech is silver, silence is gold.

In the Presence of Strangers: The Gutman Family (Chapter II)


Nachum Gutman, his wife, and three children lived in a one story cement box in the town of Kefar Sava crowned with a small attic that served as a storage room. Mundane at best and Spartan at worst, these accommodations were in fact something of a unique blessing for the Gutman family. The Holy Land is small and its holy dirt is accordingly expensive. In the wake of exorbitant market prices, the majority of Israelis live atop one another in crowded apartment complexes. But the nearer the West Bank one ventures, the cheaper land becomes, and Kefar Sava is just inconveniently situated enough to render back yards affordable to a few lucky members of the middle class. The town is a teeming place, and in 2001 boasted the distinction of housing what was then the largest Kentucky Fried Chicken in the entire Middle East.

But the comforts of Kefar Sava weren’t always accessible to the Gutman family. When they first married, Nachum and his wife lived in an inexpensive apartment in Qiryat Ono. Although their flat was far from luxurious, it was quite comfortable for two people. After the birth of Yael, they called it cozy. After the birth of Raz, they called it crowded. After the birth of Yonatan, they called it quits. Although Nachum was only an under-manager at the ELCO Factory, twenty years of thrift and two mortgages allowed the Gutmans tenure of their own concrete and linoleum Xanadu. But even though their house was humble, it boasted some degree of local notoriety. Thanks to a managerial fluke, its back yard was a full two meters wider on either side than it should have been.

From the day that his family first moved to Kefar Sava, Nachum took pathetic pride in the slightly inflated size of his back yard. When he could no longer endure the critiques of his mother (who lived thankfully far away back in Qiryat Ono), the complaints of his wife, or the selfishness of his children, he would find an excuse to grow a new plant. Consequently, by the summer of 2001, not so much as a single window was visible behind a veritable jungle of laurel trees and rose bushes. But if one were to cast aside the foliage on the twenty-third day of June and peek inside the little bunker’s lavatory, the snoop would catch sight of an entertaining spectacle. An eighteen year old boy was primping in front of the bathroom mirror with all of the flamboyance of a peacock in heat.

Raz hummed unmelodically as he smeared his neck with lather and fumbled to retrieve a razor from his leather bag of toiletries. A pile of clothing soaked in a puddle of bathwater lay beside him. It hardly mattered. He was confident that his mother would clean up after him. He rubbed a circle of steam from the mirror and examined his reflection. He considered to himself that though he was lankier than he might have preferred, he had the face of the muse of a Renaissance artist. But despite the generous amounts of acne cream he had applied the night before, his forehead remained distressingly oily. He attempted to shave the elusive space between his chin and Adam’s apple. His efforts met with little success, but he told himself that he had done a fine job. He shaved his upper lip, creating a fleeting little Hitler moustache as he did so. He made a scary face at himself in the mirror. Then he shaved it off. He tried to whistle the national anthem. He examined his hairline apprehensively. He wondered if he would go bald like his father.

Raz was born with wisps of light blonde hair and iridescent blue eyes, but his head in general darkened after the age of three. For a time, his mother attempted to rub lemon juice into his scalp in an effort to bleach it back to its former splendor. Unfortunately, the resulting color was little better than a riot of brown streaks. Eventually, Miriam was compelled to resign herself to a swarthy son. But though Raz grew darker and coarser with age, a flicker of gold would occasionally shimmer in his hair, and he would seem to regain something of his former appearance. Now, however, was not one of those occasions. He was so tan that in bad lighting, he could almost pass for an Arab.

At eighteen, he was through with school and did not regret its passing. Although keenly intelligent, he was bored by the ambience of the classroom and had made no real friends there. He spent most of his time dreaming about America. He perfected his English by imitating the accents of the casts of Seinfeld and Friends. One of his greatest accomplishments in life was getting through every word of an old copy of Gone with the Wind with his grandfather and double checking that they understood each sentence with the help of a published translation. He’d had a lot of spare time on his hands once.

As for the army, it was still months away and, despite the shadow that it cast across the youths of all Israelis, still remained intangible to him. All that mattered was that he was finally old enough to open the bank account that Safta Gisela has started for him when he was born; for now, ten thousand dollars was more money than he could even dream of spending. Sandwiched between the inaccessibility of the past and the uncertainty of the future, he had made a conscious decision to dispense altogether with his yesterdays and tomorrows. He looked uncertainly at his reflection and began to gargle mouthwash. He hoped that he would be ready in time.

He’d been preparing for the past half hour for a date with Ilana, the girl that his mother called his chavera. If it were up to him, he would have preferred to call her his nothing. She’d been his acquaintance for years, and just another faceless face he encountered every day between a smile and a yawn. But one day his senior year, she smiled at him in the hallway. Then some insane impulse impelled him to ask her to the movies. That was the beginning of the end.

He’d never even been on a date before. Until that year, he had been disfigured by acne all over his face. The repugnance with which he was sure everyone encountered him had imprisoned him in an involuntary state of asexuality throughout his adolescence, stunting the development of his social graces. To justify the world’s lack of interest in him, he’d learned to delude himself into believing that he was similarly indifferent. He’d taught himself to fear both the intimacy of a relationship and the emotional horror of a breakup. And he had long since made it a habit to hunt for the imperfections of his classmates in search of excuses to disregard the effort of initiating a romance with any of them. Better to do that, he thought, than to risk the humiliation of his awkward advances being rejected, or the suffocation that would inevitably follow as the attendant consequences of their acceptance. And so he spent the majority of his high school years masturbating in the dark to the thought of rich and popular girls who were out of his league.

For some reason, though, he’d decided to take a chance with Ilana. Maybe he wanted to see what he’d been missing all those years. She enjoyed the particular recommendation of his mother, who was an old family friend of her parents. Miriam was always warning him that the over-critical die alone, morose advice though it might have been to give to a teenage son. To his surprise, Ilana accepted him, pustules and all. At first, the magic of a fumbling physical relationship blinded him to reason, and for a long time, he did his best to enjoy her company. But it wasn’t easy. She was always second guessing his intentions and pointing out his flaws. Worse yet, she persisted in forcing him to spend time with her friends, a group of people he found almost unbearably irritating. Eventually, he grew to dislike almost everything about Ilana. But somehow, without his even knowing it, she’d become his chavera.

Then, one day, as if by magic, his acne cleared up. Girls suddenly began to notice him. Of course, to leave the woman who’d chosen him before his metamorphosis in exchange for the superficial harpies who’d always spurned him would have been disgusting. Besides, he was too chivalrous to abandon Ilana after all they’d done together. But his patience was beginning to wear thin.

He chafed his head with a towel and gazed longingly at himself in the mirror. He was almost unusually handsome, he thought, although he often claimed to deny it. But Ilana’s face was the shape of a watermelon and her jaw jutted out like a witch’s chin. He was never really at ease with her. She seemed to see him as a piece of shapeless marble to be refined and transformed by her persistence. But Raz wanted to be his own sculptor.

He clawed at his face for a final time and, after burnishing the dry skin on his nose with a paper towel, decided to take a second shower. His first had been too short, and anyway, he found the feeling of the hot water to be calming. But when he approached the tub, he toppled over his ball of laundry, landing squarely on his stomach. For a moment, he lay paralyzed in a sea of soap and dirty clothes. But then, he laughed at his clumsiness, got up, and turned the shower handle, staring at the tiles of the bathroom wall as he waited for the water to grow warm again.

Their dark blue pattern reminded him of the beach. As a child, he’d fantasized about being a deep sea diver, although he’d long since learned that there was little more than filth and jelly fish to be discovered at the bottom of the Mediterranean. But still, he remembered the ambition fondly. It reminded him that for as long as he could remember, he was always curious to discover what lay beneath the surface. For all of his faults, he told himself that he was a deep person, and as such enjoyed a certain diplomatic immunity in all his of dealings with other people. Whatever anyone thought of him, he would always have his profundity of character, and for the time being at least, that was more than enough to justify his self-absorption.

He congratulated himself on his powers of introspection and checked the water temperature. Finding it to his liking, he stepped into the tub. Just then, the bathroom door flung open and a little voice cried out at him from across the room.

“Get out of here, Yael! You don’t own the place, you know!”

Yonatan had pounded on the bathroom door so violently that he accidentally pushed it open. Raz moved the shower curtain aside and poked out his head.

“Get out of here yourself, Yonatan!”

“I’m sorry Raz,” he stammered, scrambling out of the bathroom. “I didn’t know that it was you.”

Yonatan closed the door and hunched miserably over the threshold. He hoped that Raz wasn’t angry with him. He loved his older brother blindly. Raz was never too busy to do things like tell him stories at night before he went to bed, or help him build Lego sets, or watch American cartoons together, or play Pokemon on Gameboy. This sort of kindness stood in marked opposition to the frigidity of their sister Yael, who was always ignoring him. Granted, she’d been friendly to him for about a week earlier that month when the news about Irina’s murder first broke, but she’d since reverted back to her usual callousness. Raz, though, was absolutely magnificent, swept up in some enigmatic sense of purpose that somehow lay beyond the comprehension of a nine year old mind. For all of his reverence, though, Yonatan could think of nothing at the moment but his need to use the bathroom. He prayed to God that his body would prove physically capable of waiting out a second shower.

After what seemed like an eternity, Raz opened the door clad in red, white, and blue striped boxers.

“You shouldn’t go barging into bathrooms without knocking,” said Raz all-knowingly. “Remember, we only have one shower, and there are five people in this house.”

“I know, I’m sorry,” answered Yonatan, shuffling in place. “I wouldn’t have pounded on the door so hard if I knew that it was you in there and not Yael.”

Raz smiled.

“Do you want to help me pick out clothes to wear tonight? I’ll let you into my room again. Your daytime exile will be officially called off.”

Yonatan forced himself to be still.

“Really, Raz?”

“Why not? I admire your fashion sense.”

Really, Raz?”

“Yeah, now hurry up.”

“I’ll be there in a minute!”

“My door will be locked in a minute,” called Raz, already making his way to the house’s bomb shelter that doubled as his bedroom. “If you want to come, you’ll have to come now.”

“Can’t you wait?” pleaded Yonatan, scrambling after him despite himself. “You haven’t let me into your room during the day since I spilled Fanta on your Gameboy last week. I’ll only be a minute!”

“Never mind, Yonatan. Forget about it. Maybe you can make a visit with Ima when she comes in here to vacuum someday.”


“Just be quiet and help me find my socks.”

Raz ruffled Yonatan’s hair and then began to rummage through his dresser. Yonatan stared at his brother in mute awe.

“Do you really admire my fashion sense?”

“Sure. I bet that your plastic sandals are the hottest things on the playground.”

“Are you being sarcastic?”

“I’m impressed you know that word.”

“Are you kidding? Ima screams it at me all the time.”

“Anyway, what do you think I should wear tonight?”

“I think you should wear your zebra shirt, the one with the black and white stripes.”

“Wow. That’s a pajama top, Yonatan.”

“Really? It looks cool though. To go with it, why don’t you borrow Aba’s work boots, and-”

Before Yonatan could finish his sentence, Raz’s cell-phone rang in his back pocket. After a couple of rounds of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he discovered the telephone buried beneath a petrified ball of tissue paper and brought it to his ear, involuntarily cringing for fear of cranial cancer.

“Hello? Oh, shalom, Ilana. Speak up, I can’t hear you. I hate holding these things too close to my head. I’ll be ready in a few minutes…”

Yonatan began to pace around the room. At last, he considered making a break for it when the sudden sight of Raz’s flaring nostrils stopped him in his tracks.

“What do you mean Ofir and Nathan are coming with us to the beach? Why did you invite them? You know how much I hate it when you… yes, yes, yes, I still want to go out! It’s too late to change plans now… No, Ilana, I don’t think that I’m overreacting…Oh, I promise you that I won’t antagonize Ofir! Has it ever occurred to you that he might be the one who’s always insulting me?”

By now Yonatan was reduced to hopping miserably in place. Unable to bear the wait any longer, he finally rushed out of the room and into the hallway. The moment he reached the bathroom, though, Yael swept into his path and said,

“Get out of my way, kid.”

He prepared to protest, but his sister slammed the door in his face before he could say a word. Yael ignored her brother’s squeals and looked for her reflection in the bathroom mirror. There was nothing there. Raz had done a fine job of clouding up the room. She noticed his pile of dirty laundry on the floor. Her mother would expect her to pick up after him, no doubt, despite the fact that it was her birthday. She cursed under her breath and wiped away a circle of steam from the mirror. She examined her face. She was not beautiful and she knew it. Eyes, nose, mouth, all in their proper places, but all terribly unremarkable. Her nostrils were set too widely apart, and her forehead was too high. She was her mother’s daughter.

Since her best friend Avital had moved away to Haifa, Yael’s life was like a never-ending one act play with an eternity of the same monologues, the same scenery, and the same bad actors. One day, she thought, the curtain would rise unexpectedly on a new act, complete with fresh scenery and new players. But for the time being, she was confined to the longsuffering servant’s role in the most boring drawing room comedy in world history, imprisoned in the doldrums of polite domesticity with all of the inevitability of an Israeli Cinderella. She bit her lip at the thought of it and then began to brush her teeth.

In the meantime, Yonatan ran into the kitchen, his face scarlet. His mother was standing at the counter drying tears from her eyes. The entire house reeked of onion and garlic.

Ima, Yael won’t let me-”

“Oh Yonatan, don’t shout!” shouted Miriam.

“But Ima-

“I’m busy right now. Can’t you do anything on your own? You’re ten years old!”

“I’m nine.”

“That’s funny. When you wanted to stay up until midnight yesterday, you said that you were ten. It’s a talent to change your age at will like that.”

“You should know. You’ve turned thirty-nine for five years in a row now.”

“Don’t be so sarcastic! For God’s sake, where’s your father? He left to buy drinks like an hour ago. How long do we have to wait for him?”

Yonatan left the kitchen and hobbled toward a bean bag chair in the living room. He grimaced at his mother, but Miriam took no notice. She was busy running from microwave to oven and from pot to pan with more energy than her rudimentary recipes seemed to demand. Her hair clung to her forehead in thick black strands, but she would not take the time to rearrange it— her husband would see her unkempt state and realize how hard she’d been working preparing for the party without him.

She considered that she’d once been an attractive woman. But when she approached the sink and caught sight of her reflection in a metal pan, it seemed to her that her distorted image was more like a heap of crumples than a face. She felt a sharp pain in her right arm. Maybe she was coming down with arthritis. In fact, she knew that she was coming down with it. She felt it creeping into her joints day by day, and her great aunt Margot had had it besides. But she didn’t have time for personal concerns right now. There was work to be done, and her toil would probably never end until she was in the grave and at least granted the poetic justice of leaving her family helpless. She placed the lid on a pot of chicken broth and moved to slice a loaf of bread.

Yael now trudged into the kitchen. Yonatan leapt from the couch and ran into the newly vacant bathroom, knocking over an end-table as he did so.

“I wish that the psychiatrist would have listened to me and prescribed Ritalin for him,” said Miriam, whispering the word psychiatrist.

“It’s been a hard month for him.”

“It’s been a hard month for all of us. But it seems like Yonatan can’t focus on anything for more than ten minutes at a time anymore. It’s becoming a headache. Really, I don’t understand why summer vacations have to last the whole summer. Don’t schools have any pity on parents? He has nothing to do but sit around the house all day and think about things that he can’t help. No wonder the boy has nightmares. And all of his friends are away at camp. There’s nothing to help take his mind off things.”

She turned to Yael. “By the way, I want you to clean the bathroom floor before Safta gets here, but you can sit here for now, to rest. Just don’t look in the refrigerator. I’m making something special for your birthday and I want it to be a surprise. Is that a new dress?”

“You bought it for me three years ago for my graduation. It was on sale.”

“Well, it looks good as new and is really very flattering on you. It almost gives the impression you have a chest.”


“I was only saying that it was a smart choice to wear tonight! It’s very adult. You know, it’s hard to wrap my mind around the fact that you’re turning twenty-one today. Can you believe that I was twenty-one when your father proposed to me?”

“Well times have changed,” said Yael, flipping to a documentary on the Learning Channel. “You’re not being very subtle with your hints. But I want you to know that there’s more to life than marriage, especially at my age. Now that I’ve finished with the army, I should be off seeing the world. I should be in India or Thailand or some exotic place like that. But instead, I’m trapped here in this kitchen with you.”

She scanned her mother’s face for a reaction. Miriam laughed.

“You can fly to any third world country you like when you have something in your pocket to send you there.”

Yael clicked her tongue against her teeth and focused her attention on the television. A woman in a white lab coat was speaking in an authoritative voice about genetics.

In light of groundbreaking research, genes have proven more than relevant to the field of modern biology. They may well hold significant clues to our understanding of life itself at the dawn of the new millennium.

“I’ll have something to send me there soon enough,” said Yael, looking raptly at the screen, “and I won’t need anyone’s favors after I go to nursing school… I still want to go to nursing school, you know.”

“You and Avital would talk about enrolling all the time when you were in high school.”

“But I was more sincere about it than she was, evidently.”

“I imagined that the dream died for both of you after she got engaged to that corporal she met in the army.”

“Dreams never die.”

“That’s what you think. Anyway, I’m sure that Shlomie’s going to love that new dress.”

“Stop repeating yourself. I told you that it wasn’t new. Besides, Shlomie wouldn’t notice it even if it was. He’s a pretty oblivious person.”

“You’re awfully cranky tonight. Has something changed between you two?”

“Of course not. That’s the problem. Our relationship is totally boring. Nothing ever changes between us.”

“Spontaneity is overrated, Yael. There’s something to be said for consistency.”

Miriam wiped her hands on her apron and returned to the oven. Whatever Yael’s many shortcomings, her taste in men at least was impeccable. Her boyfriend came from one of the wealthiest and most respected families in the country. When his parents first immigrated from Czechoslovakia, they were known as the Morgans, but after their beachside restaurant grew into a chain of popular cafes, they eventually adopted the name Shachar, setting aside memories of the Second World War and accentuating their Israeli heritage instead. Granted, Shlomie was not exactly a witty or personable or clever young man, and he had somehow doubled in weight since joining the army. But did these kinds of details really matter, considering that he was an aristocrat? Yael had met him two years ago at a distant cousin’s Bar Mitzvah, and they’d been dating ever since. They would undoubtedly marry someday. Miriam was sure of it. In fact, Shlomie’s mother Tziporah had confided that the engagement was coming any day now. She saw herself in her daughter’s eyes and beamed, pushing a plate of dry biscuits in the direction of her face.

“Eat those crackers.”

“I don’t want them.”

“Eat them.”

“I said no.”

“You look like a skeleton, Yael! Eat the crackers!”

Yael ate the crackers.

A car honked in the parking lot. Miriam hurried to the window hoping to find Nachum, but only saw Ilana Fischer opening the door of an unfamiliar minivan. She nodded her head in grudging approval. She was pleased that Ilana was Raz’s girlfriend despite the fact that her parents were a pair of stingy ingrates. She could not forget that they had arrived empty-handed at Rosh Ha Shana after she’d spent eighty shekels on a stainless steel frying pan for their anniversary party. Oddly enough, Ilana didn’t appear to be carrying anything with her, and Miriam wondered just where she was hiding her daughter’s birthday present. She wouldn’t have dared to show her face without a gift after the scandal of the frying pan. Still, Miriam realized that she shouldn’t be so quick to judge. After all, she might be bringing a check. She answered the door before the girl could find the time to knock on it.

“Hello, Miriam,” gasped Ilana. “You startled me! Is Raz ready to go?”

“I wasn’t expecting you tonight! How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you. And you?”

“Under the weather, to be honest. As usual.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Do you have a bag or an envelope or something that I can help you with?”

“Excuse me?”

“Aren’t you here for my daughter’s party?”

Raz now appeared in the hallway. His head shimmered with mousse, and a single strand of hair lay carefully positioned on his forehead for a show of spontaneity. Ilana tried to embrace him, but he did not return the gesture. He began to follow her outside, but Miriam stopped him.

“What’s going on, Raz?”

“I’m going out.”

“But it’s your sister’s birthday party tonight.”

“Well, happy birthday to her. Did I shave the bottom of my neck right? I can never tell.”

“It’s your sister’s twenty-first birthday, and you’re going out?”


“But we’ve been getting ready for this party all day. Don’t you have any consideration for her feelings?”

“Only about as much as she has for mine.”

“You used to be so close.”

“That was a long time ago, Ima.”

Miriam began to protest, but just then, Nachum and Gisela entered the house bearing a cargo of assorted groceries.

“Where have you been?” growled Miriam. “I thought that something terrible happened to you and we’d have no drinks for the party!”

“Well, that would have been a heavy loss,” said Nachum, positioning his bag of groceries on the table and making his way into the living room.

“You said that you would only be gone for ten minutes! How could you leave me by myself to…look at me, Nachum! I feel like a slave in my own house sometimes.”

“Sorry,” he said, opening the newspaper.

Gisela stared coldly at her daughter-in-law.

“Hello, Miriam.”

“Oh, shalom, Gisela,” said Miriam hurriedly but in a deferential voice. “Yael is in the kitchen and Yonatan is upstairs. They’ll be happy to see you. Raz is going out.”

She kissed her mother-in-law’s cheek and rushed out of sight, mumbling objections to herself as she went. Gisela winked at her grandson.

“Wherever you’re going, you’d better leave now, before your mother gets back,” she said, slipping him a hundred shekel bill whose absence she would feel in her weekly budget, although not too acutely. “Have a good time.”

Raz embraced his grandmother and kissed her on both cheeks. Then he left the house, slamming the door behind him. Gisela watched him leave intently. He would be a soldier soon.

In the Presence of Strangers: Sabbath Shopping (Chapter I)

I will post a new chapter from my novel about Israel and the intifada every Friday. This book is dedicated to Safta, Saba, Bubby, and Poppy. 

That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” (Hillel)


The rose of Sharon wilts precisely six kilometers south of Kochav Yair, just beyond a fork in the road notorious for traffic accidents. To the west, civilization sprawls irresistibly onward, approaching the Pizza Huts and McDonalds’ beyond which the classic waters of the Mediterranean lap the shoreline. To the north, on the other side of a security post manned by guards bearing semiautomatic weaponry and acne scars, the roads of Palestine ramble alongside the wadis of the West Bank, progressing through a long parade of graveyards until they reach the Jordan River, or what is left of it, anyway.

It is a wild place, but not without some sense of dilapidated grandeur. Hills strewn with boulders diffract the sunshine into webs of color and crown the surrounding countryside with their moving shadows. Whitewashed minarets preside over Arab villages. Satellite dishes punctuate the Judaic skyline. The cries of Palestinian children hawking cactus fruit mingle with the blare of Toyota horns at rush hour. Light and shadow, stone and air, past and present—schisms define the place. But encompassing every coming and going are light winds descending from the nearby hills of Samaria, that biblical wilderness proverbial around the world for its neighborliness.

On the twenty-third day of June in the first year of the new millennium, Nachum Gutman’s sea green Ford approached these crossroads from the direction of Kochav Yair and turned toward the West Bank. In the front seat of the car sat all seventy-five kilograms of Gisela Gutman, seatbelt securely fastened. Her son wasn’t wearing one.

“For God’s sake, Nachum, would you please slow down? Is getting to this place five minutes sooner worth killing the two of us?”

“The store closes at five. Try to relax. Enjoy the scenery.”

“I’m telling you, I want to go home!”

“Give me a break, Ima. Just think about the deals you’ll find when we get to the store. The thought of saving money is like Prozac when it comes to you.”

“What’s Prozac?”

“Don’t worry about it. What’s important is that if you pay the shopkeeper in cash at this place, he’s always willing to give you a discount. And Coca Cola is Coca Cola whether you buy it from an Arab or a Jew, right?”

“Bravo, Nachum. How profound. You know, when your father— may he rest in peace— when your father was in the army, he would give the Bedouin laborers his regiment’s leftover food. You know what a generous man he was. And do you know how they repaid him? With rock throwing. Rock throwing! When his jeep drove by, they threw rocks at him.”

“How do you know that those rock throwers were the same Bedouins who enjoyed the generosity of Aba’s table scraps?”

Gisela narrowed her eyes. For a moment, she was silent. But only for a moment.

“I don’t understand what’s happened to this country,” she said loudly. “Israel is going to pieces. It’s as if everything my generation fought for is going to pieces.”

“Remind me again exactly what you crusaded for as a housewife in the suburbs.”

“Your aren’t impressing anybody with your sarcasm, you know. You have no pride in anything that matters. No pride, and no common sense. My son, the hippy!” She pronounced the word “hippy” through her nose, shaking her index finger menacingly before resuming her diatribe. “There is only one Israel, but there are so many Arab countries. I don’t understand why the Palestinians can’t all move to Jordan. Why else was it created by the British?”

“I have a better idea. Why don’t we just drive them into the sea?”

“Are you trying to be funny? Because as usual, you’re failing pretty miserably at it.”

“It’s just that I’d forgotten what a progressive political thinker you were.”

“Why don’t you stop trying to educate me and turn this car around? I keep telling you that I don’t feel safe here.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. We’re almost there. We need to pick up drinks for Yael’s party.”

Gisela turned away from Nachum, grinding her teeth. He’d tricked her into coming with him to the borders of the West Bank, and now it was too late to turn back. But she wouldn’t allow his obstinacy get the best of her. If he wouldn’t listen to plain common sense, perhaps he would at least heed the call of history.

“Nachum darling,” she began in her most somber tones, “listen carefully to me. We Jews have always been an oppressed people. You don’t understand the kind of prejudice and hatred that we used to face in the days before we had a country to call our own.”

Oivaivoi, here it comes.”

“I’m only saying that the world could be a better place with a little understanding and some human compassion. We must learn to accept each other, and until these Palestinians do so, there will never be peace.”

“Never mind war and peace. We’ve arrived.”

The car halted. Gisela unfastened her seat belt and fumbled to find a package of Kleenex in her handbag. The store, if one could call it that, was little better than a hovel beside a gas station. She was embarrassed to be so profoundly terrified by such a contemptible place. As Nachum lumbered to open her door, she was at least comforted to glance a second car with an Israeli license plate in the parking lot. Maybe the place wasn’t so God-forsaken after all.

She was relieved. A moment ago, she’d almost felt like a traitor to her people. Was she, Gisela Gutman, daughter of the most accomplished dentist in Warsaw, sullying a cause rooted in millennia of dispersal and persecution by purchasing soft drinks from the enemy? It was a gnawing suspicion plaguing her ever since her son had informed her just where their shopping errand would be taking them. She had never trusted in the possibility of peace. The current storm of violence was perfectly logical to a woman of her penetrating sensibilities. Judgment Day seemed to linger on the horizon, and yet here she was, wandering like Daniel into the lion’s den for the sake of discounts on sugar water. But the presence of an Israeli car promised at least a rudimentary degree of security and national solidarity. So, after a final sigh for good measure, she resigned herself to the task at hand. Terror would not distract her from pursuing the necessities of everyday life. Perhaps a journey to the front lines might even prove to be patriotic.

But her resolve weakened the moment she stepped over the threshold. The Arab cashier nodded menacingly in her direction. His teeth were just as repulsive as she could have imagined. In the far corner of the room, a little boy was napping on a crate. The skin of his neck was raw and flaking. Gisela wondered if his condition was contagious. She cast the cashier a defiant glance and shuffled toward the center aisle, grasping at bottles of Cola and hastily packing them into a basket as she sought out the owners of the Israeli car from the corner of her eye.

To her dismay, they were nowhere to be found, and she came to the immediate conclusion that foul play was somehow involved in their disappearance; a cliché perhaps, but these kinds of things were clichés for a reason. All at once, the dour headlines of the morning newspaper became horrifyingly less anonymous. Foul play would certainly explain the cashier’s smile. Was he trying to throw her off guard? Far-fetched, perhaps, but then again, these were strange times, and it was better to be safe than sorry.

She began to rush from aisle to aisle, seeking out her son within the labyrinth of olive oil and potato chips that separated them. She finally discovered him in the far corner of the store loading plastic bags with cucumbers. Cucumbers? They had come for Coca Cola. What was next, ketchup, salad dressing, vinaigrette? She would not have it. She waddled to his side with surprising speed for a woman of sixty-three years.

“We have to get out of here, Nachum. Pay the cashier and leave. I told you that it wasn’t safe here.”

“I might as well buy some groceries while I’m here.”

“Do you really think that this food is sanitary?”

“Don’t worry. I’ll disinfect all of the vegetables in industrial strength bleach when we get home.”

“Enough fooling around. I want to go home now. I can’t stand it here.”

“If you’re so eager to leave, pay the cashier for the drinks and wait for me by the car. I won’t be much longer.”

Pay the cashier? She prepared to sweep out of the place once and for all when she came to a terrible realization. If she did not pay for the Cola herself, her son would be left alone in the shop weighed down with too many groceries, which would leave ample opportunity for the Arabs to rob him. This was no time to be self-righteous. So she bit her lip, approached the cash register, thrust her crate onto the counter, and averted her eyes, praying to God that the shopkeeper wouldn’t try to banter with her. Her prayers went unanswered.

“How are you today?”

“I’ve been better.”

“Sorry to hear that. Well, that will be six shekels, ma’am. Ma’am? I said that will be six shekels.”

“Six…six shekels? That can’t be right.”

“You can see the price tag for yourself.”

“But that’s only a guideline in a place like this. I won’t pay more than four and a half.”

“This isn’t a market, lady! The price is six shekels.”

“But I said that I won’t pay more than four and a half. Don’t worry, I’ll give it to you all in cash. Take it or leave it.”

Gisela proceeded to cross her arms with such pathetic grandeur that the clerk couldn’t help but smile at her.

“It’s too late in the day to argue. Do you need a bag for these?”

“You certainly seem to speak Hebrew very well.”

“I should hope so. I’m a Jew, after all.”

“You’re a Jew?”

“Of course I am. I live in Zur Yigal.”

“And this is where you work?”

“I run the franchise, though granted, it’s not the best location for a store these days. That’s my car parked out front.”

“And the boy asleep in the corner?”

“My son, Dov.”

“I don’t believe it. My son thought that this was an Arab store.”

“Far from it, ma’am.”

“But your Cola has Arabic labels.”

“It’s bottled in Ramallah. I can pick it up on the quiet and avoid paying the VAT.”

They both smiled. Then Gisela collected her groceries and left the shop. She thought to herself how charming the little store seemed to be, how neatly it was stocked and with what tender care the cans of stringed beans had been stacked atop each other beside the entrance. Dingy as the place might have been and though it had a slightly unpleasant odor, it was a symbol of something altogether greater than itself. She closed her eyes and fanned herself with her pocket book, waiting for her son to return. The ruins of daylight fused with moonlight, and shadows began to devour the surrounding landscape. It was an indescribably beautiful time of day.

At last, Nachum approached the car and began to load the trunk with groceries. Unable to contain the desire to prove him wrong for even a moment, she pronounced the news in resounding tones as soon as she saw him.

“Nachum, you won’t believe it! It wasn’t an Arab store at all. It was a Jewish store. A Jewish store.”

“A Jewish store, eh? I’d like to have seen the face of the mohel who was hired for the bris.”

“Ha. Ha. Ha.”

“Well, I wouldn’t have guessed… It doesn’t really make any difference, though. Does it?”

For the first time that day, Nachum made her laugh. She imagined that despite his apathetic veneer, he must have been just as relieved as she was to hear about the store. He was just too stubborn to admit it. Either that, or the news actually disappointed him, because their visit to the ends of the earth had made him feel subversive in a petty way, and he derived pleasure from tormenting her. Nachum was worse than a fool. He was an idealist. But he was young, he would learn in time. As would his children, and their children, and their children, and generations after them, on into eternity. They would all learn.


Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IX (A Tragic History)


On our way to the library, I passed beside a weathered portrait of my father. I recognized the painting from my childhood, though I remembered it being more colorful than it actually was. I resembled him closely right down to our upswept auburn hair, though he was, admittedly, quite pale.

I suppose that I should say a bit more about his exploits and the circumstances of my childhood, although I honestly despise the kind of books that spill ink over long tangential asides as if their authors were paid by the letter. Ultimately, however, I consider it better to include a few pages of exposition than to potentially confuse my readers by restricting myself to hints and innuendo about the past, as I’ve done until now.

When I first began to consider the prospect of writing this book, I thought that I would make it a lengthy third-person epic beginning with my father’s birth in Scotland. But two considerations ultimately dissuaded me from this course of action. The first was that I would have been compelled to write at length about people and places unfamiliar to me personally, which would have ruined the honesty of this account. How, for example, would I have portrayed my mother, a woman whom I’d never met nor even seen in a daguerreotype? My second concern was that I didn’t wish to seem to be casting judgment on the India of my father’s youth, a civilization I never knew beyond stories of cock-fights, native mistresses, and drunken brawls, a broken but rambunctious dreamscape that saw the British hungrily engorging themselves on the carcass of a dying aboriginal culture. I was born just as that old India was being torched and a new, gentrified colonial holding was taking its place on the funeral pyre.

My father John Maxwell first came to India in 1806 when he was only 16 years old. He was ostensibly seeking adventure and fortune, but I think it was more likely that he was escaping the influence of his father, a Presbyterian minister from Aberdeen who, I was told by my aunts, used to beat all of his children regularly to the point of bleeding. He began his career in Calcutta working as a Europe-shopkeeper on Court House Street. Europe-shops sold all sorts of goods in those days from carriages to coffins and could turn a great deal of profit if properly managed. My father’s store was evidently one of the finest in the city, celebrated for its Portuguese wines.

Independently of his partners in the shop, he soon made a small fortune for himself supplying goods to what were then the remote settlements of Cawnpore and Fatehgurh. In those days, budgerows would only make the trip upcountry a few times per month and there was great profit to be made servicing the more inaccessible stations of the Doab. His work made him the acquaintance of Captain Nathan Blenkinsopp, an elderly English commander of one of the several native infantry divisions at Cawnpore. Appreciative of both my father’s wit and talent for consuming copious amounts of liquor without collapsing, Captain Blenkinsopp eventually arranged for him to become Agent to the Army and Military Store Contractor. Needless to say, these proved to be most lucrative commissions.

Rupee Pandit, my grandmother, was a Nagar Brahmin and an ayah in Captain Blenkinsopp’s household. Her given-name at birth was of course not Rupee, but this is what Captain Blenkinsopp always called her, and the moniker stuck. It was remarkable to me that she was able to transform that sardonic name into an endearing one. In fact, I don’t know her original name even now, though I always knew the family to be called Pandit. She told me many times that our ancestors were descended from officers in the army of Alexander the Great who’d come to India two millennia ago to fight the elephants of King Porus. The blue eyes of several members of the Pandit clan were considered proof of this theory. Although I would have loved to have believed this tale, in my heart, I knew that the aforementioned color more likely came by way of Liverpool than Pella.

Rupee’s daughter, my mother Elizabeth, had such a fair complexion that most people assumed that she was the product of an affair with Captain Blenkinsopp, whose English wife was long since dead and whose son by his first marriage, Daniel, was then away at school in England. This rumor about Elizabeth’s parentage was only fortified by her being raised as the Captain’s ward, to say nothing of the open prominence which my grandmother enjoyed in that household. It was never made clear to me whether or not my mother formally married my father, though the silence on this subject leads me to assume that there was in fact no ceremony. Still, they certainly lived together as husband and wife until her death in childbirth in 1830. Afterward, Rupee left Captain Blenkinsopp’s villa and came to live with my father, eventually becoming something like his personal secretary, an extraordinary role for a native woman. Captain Blenkinsopp evidently cared enough about her interests to ensure that she was well-educated despite her station and well compensated upon his death. He even found sporadic employment for her brother Pulkit as a drummer in the 56th Native Infantry. The poor man was not of sound mind, but he was well meaning and incapable of malice.

I do not know if my father loved my mother. By the same token, I don’t have any especial recollection of much warmth between him and Molly either. This is not to say that my stepmother was a frigid or unkind woman. She invariably did her best to behave with as much compassion and consideration toward me as toward Vivian when I was a child, and she allowed Rupee to continue living with us at the Highlands as buriah ayah along with Pulkit. Still, it was always somewhat of a stuffy household that my father and stepmother kept, even after the birth of Peter in 1832. I remember wondering if they ever visited each other’s bedrooms.

In those days, there was still an old law in force in India forbidding Europeans from owning substantial amounts of land in their own right. Since I was native-born, my enterprising father was able to use my name to accumulate a great deal of property. After he died suddenly from an apoplectic fit after a tiger hunt in 1836—just one year before the law was changed, incidentally—I   inherited controlling interest in five indigo factories in addition to outright ownership of 36 villages, several cotton presses, indigo vats, and even a rum distillery at Jajmau and an opium clipper called the Nereid docked at Calcutta. Altogether, the property was valued at 13 lakhs.

Since I was only six years old when I came into this inheritance, my father’s will stipulated that my property be put under the management of Daniel, the son of Captain Blenkinsopp. He had recently returned from England after his father suffered a sudden bout of paralysis. Daniel’s display of filial piety as he cared for his dying parent evidently made a strong impression on my own father, who promised to look after Daniel following Captain Blenkinsopp’s death. It took place but one year before his own. His final testament actualized his promise.

Daniel, whom everyone assumed to be my mother Elizabeth’s half-brother, promptly formed a company called Blenkinsopp and Co. and managed my inheritance during my upbringing in Scotland. Vivian and I lived with my father’s spinster sisters, their father, the brutal minister, having long since died, choked to death on haggis. By the time that we sailed back to India in 1847, Daniel was a regular nabob. The family’s wealth seemed unlimited. Returning as I was to the District after so long an absence in an abstemious Scottish household, needless to say, I began to positively hemorrhage money.

What followed were the happiest two years of my life, at least before a sudden fit of coldness descended upon Vivian that all the intensity of my love for her could not thaw. Christopher, Daniel, and I spent a fortune together gambling, buying carriages, and throwing enormous burra khanas on my estates. I remember how often Peter would beg to accompany us on our nightly adventures. We treated him like a child, though, and often took malicious pleasure in holding out hope and then ignoring him. The conviction with which I felt him to be my junior is somewhat ludicrous in retrospect. After all, he was only two years younger than I was. Daniel was much older than anyone else in my circle of friends, already in his late forties. Perhaps it made him feel young again to spend time with Christopher and me. It was our private joke that we never smoked ganja with him.

My readers will wonder about the ramifications of this wasteful state of affairs. Vivian, who had evidently taken a childhood fancy to Daniel before we left for Scotland and allowed the wound to suppurate, of course said nothing to criticize us. Molly, a woman of the old order, similarly did not ask any questions, particularly because she favored Daniel very highly. Besides, Peter had inherited a great deal of money from my father which she herself was responsible for managing, so she likely had troubles of her own to occupy her attentions. For all of these reasons, no one supervised Daniel or inquired after his motives too closely. He had by then effectively managed my estates for nearly two decades in my absence. Besides, reckless spending was commonplace among young aristocrats in the District. We all competed with each other in heedlessness, and I had more to prove than anyone because I was self-conscious about my parentage.

After Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, life suddenly became altogether grimmer for me at the Highlands. I spent most of my time smoking ganja and charas with Christopher. I abandoned India for Scotland soon after Julia was born in 1849 and lived the life of a hermit among my old haunts.  Only two years later, though, I was compelled to return to the Highlands again when news of a disaster broke.

What happened, in brief, was this. In March of 1850, Daniel vanished. He claimed to have gone off to Singapore to visit his uncle, Admiral Brandon Blenkinsopp. He never reached his destination, however, and it was presumed that he was robbed on the open road and killed. Then, only weeks after his disappearance, out of the blue, news broke that Blenkinsopp and Co. had failed for 15 lakhs. Native and European creditors alike began to swarm around the carcass of my holdings like eye flies, all demanding their share of the decaying rot. I soon learned that most of my land had been heavily mortgaged by Daniel, but thankfully, property technically in my name could not be auctioned off to rectify the debts of Blenkinsopp and Co. For this reason, I believed that I still had a chance to salvage my inheritance.

By the time that I returned in 1851, the sircars and shroffs and virtually the entire native staff of Blenkinsopp and Co. had vanished. The Sub-Deputy Collector of Revenue (E. A. Reade-I’ll never forget his name) wished to make a severe example out of me and threatened to seize the entirety of my property unless I could immediately pay what was owed to the Government in back taxes. This man was an ancient enemy of my father’s, and since I was my mother’s son, he saw me as less than his equal, to say the least. I wrote to the Commissioner of Revenue at Allahabad begging for more time, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I urged my native collectors to demand rent more scrupulously from our ryots than they had in the past, Reade accused me of bullying and terrorizing them simply because we’d seized some cattle from a raving old man and sold it outright for profit. The farmer in question had paid irregular taxes for years and dared to be surly to my men when they reached his farm. He certainly would have gotten much worse treatment under a native Indian zamindar. But I cannot dwell on this topic at length. It pains me to remember how corrupt and confused the state of my estates had become.

Completely unable to pay back what was owed, I was forced to watch in silence as the bulk of my property was put up for auction. Most of my farms and villages were bought up by one Kullulooddeen Khan, who agreed to provide me the insulting allowance of 29 pounds a month. I passed Reade on the road soon after this, and he made a sarcastic remark under his breath loudly enough for me to hear it. When I told him to go to hell, I caught the attention of several native passersby who began to whisper to each other. So he noisily called me a “bankrupt nigger” to show them he meant business and continued on his way. It was soon after this that I left India again. I thought that I would never return.

The Maxwells lost everything but the Highlands. Peter, recently married and a father for the first time, was put in charge of the estate by Cruttenden and Co. of Cawnpore, to whom the property had been mortgaged. Molly personally appealed to the director of the company and his wife for mercy and sacrificed a great deal of the family’s remaining money as collateral (effectively impoverishing me completely, incidentally). Compared to me, I suppose Cruttenden and Co. saw Peter as the true heir to what was left of the magic of the Maxwell name in the District. As a matter of fact, over the period of the next few years, he managed to pay off everything that was owed on the estate, using the remainder of his inheritance and increasingly meager profits from the yearly indigo harvests to do so. He was even eventually named Deputy Opium Agent in charge of all the East India Company’s poppy fields in the vicinity of Cawnpore, a singular honor.  The family was still far from prosperous, however. Clans like the Churchers and Joneses had long since eclipsed our own in the District.

Here, then, as I wrote at the beginning of this account, were the leavings of my father’s kingdom: a run-down mansion with a red tiled roof and a fanciful name, two stories high on a lonely plain. There was also a factory with some vats that was close by, a drying house, and the assistant’s bungalow where Christopher lived. The rest was only a fading memory. I was fortunate to still own the opium clipper Nereid, which was beyond Molly’s grasp when she liquidated the family’s holdings.

Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VIII (Parlor Songs)


Julia and Thomas sang for the assembled family in the parlor before supper. My stepmother Molly accompanied them ploddingly on the piano-forte.

Ho-ro, my nut brown maiden.

Hee-ree, my nut brown maiden.

Ho-ro-ro, maiden.

For she’s the maid for me.

Her eye so mildly beaming

Her look so frank and free

In waking and in dreaming

Is evermore with me.

We broke into applause at the conclusion of the second verse to avoid an interminable punishment. Thomas bowed, and Julia curtsied repeatedly, cradling her gray kitten, Ms. Google, too tightly for comfort in her arms. The poor creature bore this indignity with patience, however. She was evidently good natured for a cat.

“That was just enchanting,” said Vivian, ethereal in yards of turquoise muslin, her hair unbound. “But skip the verses about mild-eyed Mary, please.”

“But why?” cried Julia. “That’s my favorite part of the song. It’s so emotional.”

“You’re liable to move us to tears,” said Christopher.

“Shall we eat our dinners out on the chabutra?” said Vivian. “It’s scalding in here!” Then she turned to me and dexterously avoiding even a moment’s pause in the conversation, said, “We’re all thrilled to have you home again, Maximilian. I only wish that Andrea could be moved downstairs to see you.”

“I wouldn’t want to trouble her,” I stammered.

“I’m sure that she would be very pleased to visit with you if it were possible,” said Molly, joining us. “You know that you’ll always be a welcome guest here at the Highlands, Maxim. One can always add more water to the soup.”

My eyes happened to be on Christopher as she spoke. He squinted. I wondered what sort of face I was making.

“Maxim knows that he will always be more than a guest here, mother,” ventured Peter, his breath reeking of brandy. He loathed polite conversation and very rarely shared his thoughts, so whenever he chose to say anything, he commanded great attention.

“Of course, my dear,” said Molly, adjusting the sleeves of her funereal ebony bombazine. “I misspoke.”

“Have you any interest in Company paintings, Maximilian?” improvised Vivian in a rapid voice. “I’ve been obsessed with them recently. They show such a fascinating mix…a wonderful mélange of styles.”

“Darling,” said Molly, “Maxim must be exhausted. Let him save his voice for later, when he tells your brother about his adventures in the jungle.”

“Oh nonsense, mother!” she answered, taking my arm. “Tell me, what do you think of the Daniells?”

“The Daniells?”

“Thomas Daniell and his nephew, William. They paint the most beautiful landscapes. They’re my second favorite painters.”

“They count collectively, do they?”

“Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret. I can hardly distinguish between their styles, to be honest! Can you guess who my very favorite artist is?”


“No, no—we were discussing Indian art!”

I chuckled and shrugged and must have seemed like a perfect fool. In fact, I had just downed a great quantity of bhang with Christopher on the sly and I couldn’t have cared less about Indian art. As my father’s eldest son and head of the household, I was eager to discuss several important matters with Peter such as evacuation plans for the family and the great secret I’d discovered on my travels which had inspired my return, to say nothing of my need for money. Since my arrival, though, no one had breathed a word about the mutiny to me. They all seemed more concerned about Andrea’s health than anything else. But they were all denying the plain truth. The family couldn’t remain at the Highlands for much longer or everyone there was likely to be unceremoniously slaughtered should the mutiny spread to the District.

The company moved outside onto the raised chabutra where a long table draped with a peach colored cloth had been set up. A native girl with an aquiline nose and a paunch who’d brought me a change of clothing when I first arrived had been doubling as a punkah wallah inside the house. She was presently transformed into a server. Peter’s khitmatgar was also on hand. He was a scrawny, acne-scarred fellow who looked no older than sixteen. His jacket, I observed, was at least two sizes too large for him about the sleeves. He probably inherited it from someone dead, I thought.

“We’re having pish pash and chupatties for dinner, among other things” said Peter quietly. “Jesminder tried her hand at Ayah Rupee’s old recipe—your favorite, I remember. Ever since Daniel’s death, things have been somber here at the Highlands. It’s refreshing to have an excuse to be happy again, brother.”

These were the first words that Peter had directly addressed to me since I met him on the porch earlier that evening and he’d enigmatically whispered, “Say nothing now. We’ll discuss everything later.” I’d noticed that his breath smelled faintly of spirits even then.

At first, I appreciated the illusion of domesticity so busily manufactured for me that night. Here, with the exception of my deceased father and my aunts in Scotland, was the only family that I’d ever known. My mother, Elizabeth, died in childbirth, and my father married my stepmother, an Irish cabinet-maker’s daughter, when I was only five years old. I never ventured to call her daughter Vivian my sister, though my father and stepmother had originally encouraged me to do so; for whatever reason, these exhortations ended with the birth of Peter.

Vivian was so incandescent that I knew from the moment we met that I wanted to marry her. My affection for my stepsister was fortified by the long years we spent together as Anglo-Indian expatriates in Scotland. I’ve mentioned already that we were sent to my father’s ancestral home near Inverness to receive a proper education under the supervision of his sisters. I was seven at the time, and Vivian was ten. I recalled the heartbreak of saying goodbye to Peter, who was only four and remained in India with his mother. He was always Molly’s pet and was never sent to Europe, a great rarity in those days. India was all he ever knew.

We reached the table and all joined hands, Vivian on my left and Christopher on my right.

“Maximilian should do the honors,” said Vivian, squeezing my palm. “Make it the Selkirk Grace, in honor of your father.”

Some hae meat and canna eat,” I intoned awkwardly, thinking of nothing but the moisture of my hand in Vivian’s tight grip. “And some wad eat that want it…” My pulse quickened and its rhythm throbbed in my temples. “But we hae meat and we can eat…so sae…so sae…”

So sae the Lord be thank-ed,” concluded Christopher, releasing my hand and making an exaggerated show of wiping off his own. “Sorry Maxim, but it felt like I was shaking hands with the Little Mermaid there for a minute.”

We began to eat, and for some time there was no sound but the unpleasant scratching of metal on glass. The promised pish-pash and chupatties were on the menu, along with Julienne soup, yellow rice, a curry made with some sort of meat, and bottled peas—always bottled peas. Half of us were seated before decorated porcelain, and the rest ate from plain white ceramic plates. My plate happened to have been ceramic, but so was Peter’s, so I wasn’t jealous. Our wine glasses too were mismatched. My awareness of the gauche assembly of tableware cast a pathetic air over the entire meal, an ambiance only enhanced by the fact that half of our seats lacked antimacassars. Ayah Rupee ran a tighter ship once upon a time.

To make matters worse, the wine was too dry. Just as I was secretly considering the prospect of stealing some sips from Thomas’s lassi, Vivian revived the conversation. I considered that while her mother’s serene demeanor could almost be mistaken for coldness, her daughter’s character was forged of altogether different stuff, traces of her dead father’s nature, perhaps. She was the belle of every burra khana and the most popular woman in the District, forever the volatile center of attention.

“Shaykh Muhammad Amir of Karraya is my favorite Indian artist,” she said quickly and loudly, ignoring the fifteen minute interval separating this revelation from our previous conversation.

“I would never have guessed,” I said. “You were right.”

“In fact, I quite prefer him to Michelangelo.”

“Land sakes,” said Christopher. “That’s sacrilege. Now I’ll take everything you say about art with an ocean’s worth of salt, Vivian.”

“I’m sorry to shock you, Christopher. Michelangelo was a fine sculptor and painter so long as he was capturing the male figure. But he had no range. His women all look like muscular men! And his themes were completely monotonous, never touching on everyday life.”

“Then why is he universally considered a genius?”

“Commercial concerns.”


“Ever since the invention of the aquatint, there’s existed this gauche trend of celebrating geniuses like the old Italian masters and fainting over Michelangelo. But it’s only a commercial strategy to sell prints—a way to highlight individual dead artists in a marketplace oversaturated with them. What’s genius, anyway? An excuse to be temperamental, and to take full credit for lazy work! Give me elegance and truth over genius any day.”

“Well, if you ask me, nothing is more inane than the genre scenes that you idealize so much. There isn’t anything profound or uplifting about them.”

“You’re so wrong. There’s great beauty to everyday life if you know how to see it. But some haven’t the sensitivity.”

“This is all nonsense,” slurred Peter, providing yet another rare contribution to the conversation, “The idea that you would even compare Sheik What’s His Name and Michelangelo is ludicrous. Michelangelo was a white man.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, brother. Race has nothing at all to do with matters of art.”

Molly arched her right eyebrow. I knew by the way Christopher was grinding his teeth that he’d thought of some witticism and was aching to reveal it, but he held his tongue. In his defense, he usually did his best to behave as politely as possible to everyone in my family, whose formality likely stood in stark contrast to the liveliness of his American household. The only exception was when political debates were on the docket. Then he would not only invariably venture strong opinions, whatever his audience, but even serve as a provocateur.

“Amir deserves every bit of praise that I can heap on him,” continued Vivian determinedly. “He captures the smallest details of everyday life in his paintings with amazing precision, just as Jane Austen did in her novels. I just adore his sketches of residences, carriages, hunting parties…all sorts of elegant scenes in the countryside. There’s so much truth to his style…”

“He certainly sounds talented,” I offered stupidly.

“Well, I suppose I have to admit that he’s something of a rarity. Art schools these days force native artists overwhelmingly toward portraiture, and everyone is taught the same tedious, formal style. It’s a shame, really. There was a certain beauty to that old, courtly Mogul look. Primitive but expressive.”

The room fell silent again. Evidently no one had anything else to add to the conversation about Company paintings. I reflected that even after Vivian announced that she was going to marry Daniel, I’d never stooped to treating her with anything less than the greatest warmth. But it was an enervating charade, and I’d long since succumbed to an obsession with attempting to make her feel guilty for choosing him over me. I thought that my only hope was to shame her into loving me again, so that her pity for me would overpower any lingering loyalty to her illusion of Daniel. I knew she had loved me in more uncomplicated days in Scotland when we’d shared enough kisses to lose count of them all. But after our return to India, the only time she ever touched her lips to mine again—once, softly and briefly—was on her wedding day, when I burst into tears at the sight of her in her mother’s ivory gown.

We’d all finished eating by now and the atmosphere had become positively eerie. Insects roared in the background. We all plastered lying smiles onto our faces. Only the children seemed to take their elders’ calmness at face value. They argued playfully among themselves throughout the meal.

“Shall we have a party for your birthday tomorrow, father?” asked Thomas as the plates were being cleared away by the maid and the khitmatgar.

“Of course we shall,” said Julia. “After all, it’s the Queen’s birthday as well.”

Peter, Christopher, and I stole grave glances at each other. Molly kept her eyes on her plate.

Orchid presently appeared in the doorway with Rob hiding behind her. Once again, I hadn’t heard her approach, and once again she startled me. I noticed that Molly didn’t even lift her eyes to meet her. Vivian nodded graciously at her, though. Peter’s face turned even brighter than his hair, which was auburn as my own.

She was wearing a Regency-style, close-fitting gown that flattered her form splendidly. Though the dress would have been some forty years out of fashion in London, necessity has always compelled families in the District to be open-minded on the subject of popular attire. Given what was likely a limited wardrobe, I considered that she’d made a wise selection. And the rouge that she was wearing had a similarly impressive transformative effect. I wondered why she’d gone through the trouble of adorning herself so meticulously that night.

The children would have scrambled directly off to their rooms, but she caught them and whispered something to them in a huddle. Julia objected at first, but I saw Orchid stroke her hair and coax her into acquiescence. Orchid then whispered to Thomas for a second time and then disappeared into the parlor along with Rob. The long-suffering Ms. Google took the opportunity to scurry out of the room.

We presently all focused our attention on Thomas and soon heard the sound of a violin coming from within. The boy stepped forward with what seemed like genuine reluctance and sang:

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

O where and o where is my Highland laddie gone?

He’s gone to fight the French for King George upon the throne,

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish him safe at home.


Oh where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

O where and o where did your Highland laddie dwell?

He dwelt in merry Scotland at the sign of the blue bell

And it’s oh in my heart that I love my laddie well.


Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

Suppose and suppose that your Highland lad should die.

The bagpipes should play o’er him, and I’d sit me down to cry.

And it’s oh in my heart that I wish he may not die.

Though I was initially planning to tease my nephew for singing a woman’s song, I restrained myself, for his voice was almost as pure and melodious as Christopher’s. I realized that the child had been something of a little gentleman to have deliberately lowered the quality of his song to match Julia’s faint attempts at music earlier in the night. His true voice was as tremulous and delicate as a nightingale’s. It would be a sin, I thought, when Nature re-christened him a baritone.

I wondered how it was that Orchid played the violin so well. Unless the untalented Molly had instructed her, which I most gravely doubted, I guessed that she must have been self-taught. I later discovered that I was in fact correct in this assumption. She’d even arranged the abridged version of The Bluebells of Scotland that Thomas sang for us without the use of a published broadside.

We applauded Thomas heartily. He didn’t bow this time, but blushed and retreated behind his grandmother’s chair. Orchid, Julia, and Robert emerged from the parlor and we all clapped again. Julia embraced her cousin. It was to her credit that she behaved with nothing but friendliness toward him in the aftermath of his song, though the thought of her being upstaged had, I’d seen, originally broken her heart for a moment or two. Still, whatever this redeeming characteristic, the child had yet to speak to me, though I caught her staring mutely at me with a searching expression on her face more than once during the meal.

The children were now sent to bed and the women excused themselves from the table to tend to Andrea. Orchid did not reappear. Molly made me promise to detail my experiences to her in the morning. I convinced myself that her interests were sincere and that Vivian was similarly honest in her more verbose professions of sorrow for taking her leave from me so early in the night. At length, Christopher, my brother, and I entered the house to share a hookah and candid conversation in the library. It was the moment for which I’d been waiting.

Remember Cawnpore, A Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter VII (An Introduction and a Reunion)


“Lord, this is a scandalous first impression,” I said.

The woman cocked her head to the side and stared at me. I began to wonder if her knowledge of the English language was in fact poor and she was only able to deliver certain stock snide words and phrases in it.

“I assume that you are these children’s ayah?” I exclaimed loudly and with what she must have interpreted as humiliating slowness.

“That’s what Andrea and Molly call me,” she answered fluently, setting Robert down. The child stared at me in mute terror for a moment and then scrambled indoors.

“Are all of you on a first name basis, then?”

“Get off your high horse, Maxim,” said Christopher. “Things aren’t so formal around here anymore. The little boy alone has said enough this afternoon to give a vicar apoplexy.”

“Stay out of this.”

There was an awkward pause. The woman remedied it.

“I apologize—I should have said their royal highnesses Andrea and Molly.”

“Your English is impeccable, Yulan,” I told her quietly and close to her face, so that the children wouldn’t hear me, “and since I know it not to be your native tongue, I imagine that you must have a lively intellect. But you’ve given me the immediate opinion that you are unprofessional, madam.”

Christopher cackled at this, but the woman only stared at me again in an odd sort of way. I couldn’t tell what she was thinking.  Her eyes seemed to be soulless, and she was breathing hard. At length, she smiled.

“Please call me Orchid. To be honest, only the little girl and her mother have the talent to pronounce my proper name correctly, so it’s better that you didn’t even try. Butchering the Chinese language is beneath you.”

“As teaching duties are evidently beneath you?”

“Thomas,” she said in a bored voice, “Recite your history lesson. Or are you too dense?”

“I am not!”

“Then prove it and tell your Uncle Maxim the story of the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

“The stranger thinks we have to be sent to Scotland,” whispered Julia urgently. “So do it right.” I realized that the children were completely oblivious to the danger of the mutiny. The worst horror that either of their little minds could conjure up was probably being separated from their mother, the gut-wrenching fate of all well-bred Anglo-Indian children. I couldn’t quite bring myself to sympathize with them, though, because both of my parents were dead when I left India for the first time, and I knew that worse fates existed than grammar school in Aberdeen.

“Watch me, Uncle Maxim,” Thomas sighed. He proceeded to rapidly recite, “Once upon a time there was an evil Indian prince named Sir Roger Dowlett. In seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-six the Brits were in an awful fix. Sir Roger captured Calcutta. He put 146 of her majesty’s royal…sorry…loyal subjects into a jail cell 18 feet long by 14 feet wide. Only 23 people survived the night. 123 people were crushed to death inside the cell. So, in seventeen-hundred-and-fifty-seven, Sir Roger Dowlett was sent to heaven. We beat him and his Frenchy helpers at the Battle of Plassey a hundred years ago this June, and that’s how we won India.”

“Perfect,” said Orchid. “Now run off and play.”

“Oh boy!” said Christopher excitedly in anticipation of a debate. “You’ve got the story all wrong there, Thomas.”

“I know why,” said Julia. “The prince’s name wasn’t Sir Roger Dowlett at all. It was Siraj Ud Daula. Sir Roger Dowlett was just a nickname.”

“Excellent,” said Orchid. “Now everyone has contributed to today’s history lesson. See? Was it so wrong of me to indulge the children with recess, Mr. Maxwell? It’s remarkable how erudite the baba logue are.”

As far as I was concerned, the woman’s surliness was an insult to the sacredness of her position. I knew intuitively that her fluency didn’t help matters. I guessed that she fancied herself a persecuted intellectual. But I thought she had no call to describe a child as dense to his face, particularly one so high-spirited as Thomas. I could understand why he disliked her. I suppose she was attempting to make an impression of some kind on me. But in my mind, I thought of Rupee, my grandmother, a buriah ayah of the old order, the compassionate true head of the household whatever the men of the family might think or have thought of her, shrewd, patient, and nurturing. This woman was no match for her.

I sat down beside a row of rose hedges, motioning for Julia and Thomas to join me. Julia of course remained in place, but Thomas edged forward.

“Siraj Ud Daula, or Sir Roger Dowlett as you called him, was the last Nawab of Bengal,” I explained authoritatively.  “Now, why did he attack the East India Company’s forces?”

“Because they were Brits?”

“No. It was because they defied his orders and began stockpiling weapons in Fort William in Calcutta. Fine bubble there, incidentally.”

“Why did they stockpile weapons?” he asked guiltily. (I’d just caught him blowing bubbles of saliva in boredom.)

“They were afraid of the French, who were causing trouble, as they always do in world history. Anyway, after Siraj…after he captured Fort William, some angry Europeans assaulted the native soldiers assigned to guard them. It was only then that Siraj’s officers threw all 146 prisoners into the Black Hole as punishment. When the guards told the prisoners to get inside, everyone thought it was all a joke, at first. But then their laugher transformed into terrified screams and pleas.”

I hoped that my effective use of hyperbole was proving entertaining to my audience.

“So, Siraj’s officers did it,” yawned Thomas, “and not Siraj himself?”

“Siraj was asleep—that was his excuse. Anyway, the soldiers might not have meant for the prisoners to die…when they began to die. But everyone was too afraid to wake up the prince and ask permission to unlock the doors. And so the native guards stood by as 123 people were smothered and trampled to death.”

“That’s just what I said,” said Thomas. “You’re only making the story longer, Uncle Maxim.”

“You missed the moral of the story.”


“It teaches us what happens when small-minded people use the excuse of following orders to justify their evil actions. Besides, you lacked details. For example, you didn’t even mention Robert Clive, the man who avenged the Black Hole at the Battle of Plassey. When it was all over, Siraj was betrayed by his own troops, and then he was killed.”

“And what happened to Robert Clive?”

“As a matter of fact,” interrupted Christopher, “he stuck a pen-knife into his neck in middle age. Thomas was absolutely right, Maxim! Your version of the story was no different from his. Show the kids that they can question history—that they can change the meaning of the story in retrospect, and make up their own morals. What if I told you, Tom, that Siraj Ud Daula was right to defy the British?”

“Right to defy the British?” screamed Thomas.

“From Siraj Ud Daula’s perspective, yes,” said Christopher.

“Right to suffocate all those people?” cried Julia, willing to join the conversation now that Christopher was in it.

“Christopher,” I said, “you’re ruining the lesson.” I had meant to set a calm example of the Socratic method to Orchid and was instead being upstaged.

“Wasn’t Siraj right to fight for his people’s freedom?”

“I don’t care what he was fighting for,” said Julia decisively to Christopher. “He was wrong to throw all of those people into the Black Hole. Those helpless prisoners were his responsibility, and their murder only made the British seek revenge. He didn’t help anybody, least of all his own people. But history will have its revenge on him. He’ll be remembered for all time as a villain.”

“Some people,” said Christopher, “argue that the Black Hole never really existed.”

“Oh, it existed,” I said. “There’s a plaque commemorating it somewhere in Calcutta.”

“This is an interesting history lesson,” said Thomas.

“You see, Maxim?” said Christopher. “I didn’t ruin anything. I was helping your lesson along, though you were too caught up in yourself to realize it.”

“These children need to be packed off to Scotland,” I repeated, secretly enjoying the visible effect that this threat had on them. It suppose it made me feel powerful in a petty kind of way. Admit it or not, but it can be pleasurable to be malicious to the weak when you can get away with it sometimes.

“If we were lucky, we’d all be sent far away from this place,” said Orchid. “Come along now, children, and go inside. It’s too hot to be out here.” She turned to me. “Your brother is away just now inspecting the vats, Mr. Maxwell. Andrea—I mean Mrs. Maxwell the Younger—is bed-ridden, and your stepmother, Mrs. Maxwell the Elder, is tending to her.”

“You know,” I said, “there’s no shame in being a governess. And certainly none in being a teacher.”

“Well, I’m afraid I’m no pedagogue. You found me out.” She smiled for a moment, and then became serious. “You’ve been unfriendly and formal with me from the start, Mr. Maxwell, and I confess that I’ve also been less than polite. But you needn’t think of me as your enemy. There’s no place for either of us here.”

“Speak for yourself. You certainly have a lot to say for a stranger. This is my home. My family is here.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I thought I had it on good authority,” I offered as a parting shot, “that your people respected family ties, though perhaps I was mistaken.”

Orchid’s mouth tightened.

“I didn’t ask to be an ayah, Mr. Maxwell. You know, I was a person of some importance in my world before it was destroyed. I am of pure Tartar blood. My father was a bannerman in the emperor’s army. Now, the truth is I’m practically a slave in this household. You have no call to put on airs with me to show off for your friend.”

She turned to Christopher,

“I was impressed by your lesson,” she said awkwardly, the first words she had spoken directly to him since our arrival.

I remember that the sense of desperation in her voice was offset by a certain kind of self-assured dignity, a sort of nobility of bearing that I couldn’t help but admire. Anglo-Indian manners were nothing to this woman.

Christopher only wrinkled his brow in response to her compliment. She turned away and walked slowly toward the house. I watched her leave, studying the swaying motion of her body as she moved. I wondered where she kept herself during the day.

“Some pumpkins…” muttered Christopher. “She’s off her rocker on laudanum, you understand. There’s no telling what she’ll say when she’s on the stuff.”

“Of course,” I said. “What else could account for such insolence?”

The truth was, though, that I hadn’t realized this nor even considered the possibility of this.

It was then that I heard the sound of galloping. I turned and saw Vivian riding side-saddle toward me with reckless speed.

“I’m not bald, by the way,” said Christopher, retreating reluctantly toward the house. “I’m balding. And only ever so slightly.”

I was no longer listening.

Vivian leapt from the horse. Her sea-green eyes were accentuated by the emerald ribbons of her riding habit. She was ungloved, but she took my palms in hers, shaming me. My hands were filthy, and they always became embarrassingly clammy whenever I was around her.

“I don’t know what to say,” she whispered tearfully, and embraced me. My lips grazed her cheek, excruciatingly soft. I’d almost forgotten the impossible beauty of her face, snow white in a frame of jet.

The state of my costume was not lost on her. She even shuddered at the sight of it, quickly but visibly. This pleased me immensely. Yet I couldn’t help but notice a silver locket around her neck which I knew contained a maudlin daguerreotype of Daniel, and so I too shuddered.