Photo: Ephray Beloosesky
By Vered Singer
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
“Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you.” (Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, 3)
Teaching a writing class in a retirement home – well, that really marked the point of no return. Hadassah nearly burst into tears when the director of Eden’s Garden Assisted Living Home had called her. “It’ll be fun, you’ll have a blast,” the entertainment director joyfully proclaimed, swallowing Hadassah’s silence before it could turn into a No, thank you. They’re not invalids or demented. Some of the stuff they write – I’m telling you, there are a lot of late blooming S. Yizhars there, just waiting to write their own Days of Ziklag.
A bullet of goosebumps shot straight into Hadassah’s tailbone, splitting to travel up and down twenty-two locations in her body, like the worst acupuncture of all time — or the best; only the coming days would determine which. In the “cooperative,” S. Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag served as a code name for a convoluted manuscript written in elevated language, with dozens of names, people and places, and emotions and quotes – lots and lots of quotes, most of them littered with double spaces or a variety of fonts, fat ones, slanted ones, thin ones, or wavy ones. Days of Ziklag was worse than death.
Actually, it was one Days of Ziklag too many that had finally made her quit the profession and swear she would never work as an editor again. Only a single member of the “cooperative” – that was what the women of her small company had called themselves, a few colleague friends who had shared one hairdresser, one cleaning woman, and piles of unwanted, impossibly encoded manuscripts – had remained an editor. The rest of them had opened writing workshops. But, unlike the encoded manuscripts, they couldn’t possibly exchange writing workshops. Eachinstructor had drawn her own crowd. Ruthie had attracted the cool hipsters, the best of which she had even referred to The Mushroom literary journal, in return for the magazine referring their finest rejections to her writing classes. Raphaella worked only in colleges because of the “added value” involved. And, indeed, she had gathered, in addition to the six hundred shekels she charged per lecture, a few consensual, brief love affairs, half a book of poems, two free but worthwhile reading workshops, and a cat – while she, Hadassah, was stuck with the aunties.
They flocked to her house in north Tel Aviv from all four corners of the country, the aunties. Heavyset and sinewy, or scrawny and lean, all dressed in one-size (oversized) colorful clothes with pockets in all the wrong places, earrings as vast as the moon, and rainbowy, polymer clay necklaces snuggling into wrinkly cleavages. They brought with them materials it had taken an entire lifetime to accumulate in their drawers: folded papers scribbled with meditations, thoughts, lists, words upon words, all written in a round and legible hand. As early as the first meeting, all those notes were tossed into a large box in the middle of the room, a box that remained unopened until their tenth and final meeting – based on the assumption that this would be a short term writing workshop.
The sessions had passed with literary bread and circuses, one word chasing another. They were everywhere, the words: on clothing tag labels and packages of tea and biscuits. They sometimes set out to hunt for them. Hadassah would lead the pack like an odd kindergarten teacher, slow and distracted. “Seek out the interesting words,” she would guide them. “Not ‘Eve’s Hair Salon’. Look for uncommon combinations, like this one here: ‘Palm Tree Flower Shop’. Now that’s an interesting one!”
At home, they would string together chains of words that were able to orbit Hadassah’s small, cultivated apartment. They strung those love chains on her Facebook wall as well, while she, in turn, would sometimes share new poems she delivered from her mind, as pitch black as tar, always present, nothing at all like the notes in the box; how had they ever felt happy? How had they dared to feel happy while reality was so decisively grim? They simply couldn’t thank her enough for opening for them a hatch into their dark materials, their conflicted souls, their forbidden, repressed memories. All those open, summery, flower fields, sweet kisses and honeysuckles had remained forgotten in the box. Outside it, sorrow and missed opportunities wore the skin of words, along with their siblings, pain and distress. Yet something bright always flickered beyond the horizon.
But gradually, the lines of aunties had thinned out. The new workshop participants no longer had to crowd together on the sofa, or go grab a plastic chair from the porch. Competing writing classes popped up like mushrooms after rain, mostly presided over by smug-faced brats who had never written a book in their lives. People no longer chose writing instructors based on their writing skills, but rather by the added value one could get from attending their workshops. In fact, those new writing brats advanced their students more than could ever be imagined. It was those new and inexperienced instructors who succeeded in putting up a fine group of award-winning poets who had burst into the public consciousness.
How can this be? Hadassah ragefully wrote in “the cooperative”’s WhatsApp group chat. Where did they even come from, those instructors? Ex-reality show stars! Singers and dancers! The world has flipped over, in the worst possible way!
While participants in those new workshops were thriving, her own workshops had thus far yielded a mere total of two or three mediocre poetesses who regularly published their fare in magazines edited by her friends. A few others had published poems in crowd-funded anthologies. And that was it, even though Hadassah herself had published eleven tomes of prose, fragments, and poetry. True, the last couple of volumes had been self-published, and physical copies could be obtained only in a single, struggling, independent Tel Aviv bookshop, while digital copies were available on the “Underbook” website, but everyone who was anyone knew Hadassah Pearl! And the literary prizes she had plucked! That jalopy of a Mazda – originally purchased straight from the manufacturer – still served as proof of the Prime Minister’s prize for literary excellence awarded to her at the beginning of the 2000s.
Which one of the aunties had recommended her to the assisted living home? Perhaps one of them had grown old enough to miss her? Was it a sign of her own accelerated aging? She had just celebrated fifty-five years of coping. Fifty-five candles, and a fifty- sixth for next year, but not much more than that. Tears, that was her lot on that festive, accursed day.
“All right,” she whispered down the telephone to the entertainment director of the Eden’s Garden Assisted Living Home. “When do we start?”
It was on the very next day that she reported at the entrance of the vast Eden’s Garden Assisted Living Home. Hadassah gazed at it, her eyes appreciative. It was all so white and clean, with a whiff of pleasant scents.
The elderly women waited for her at the club. She recognized her designated place: a chair situated at the end of the room, a large cardboard box at its foot, just as she had asked the nursing home activity director to arrange.
“Good evening to you all,” she said, and sat in her chair.
The senior citizens examined her with interest.
“My name is Hadassah Pearl,” she began, meticulously articulating every word. “I’m sure you’ve heard of me. Which of you has read The Last Stab?”
Ten pairs of dimmed eyes stared at her. A silence gripped the room.
“None of us,” squeaked a minuscule elderly woman.
The nine other seniors nodded as one and whispered, “We don’t know any ‘last stab’.”
“All right, never mind,” she chortled. They were awfully cute, these tiny little seniors. Just like the Oompa Loompas from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. “So… my name is Hadassah. I’m an author, a poetess, and a former editor, and I’m here to help bring out the writer in each of you, or the poet, or the child.” She smiled broadly.
The ten pairs of age-dimmed eyes continued to stare at her. Another silence gripped the room.
“I suppose each of you occasionally indulges in the sin of writing,” she began again.
“You must have brought some old materials with you, things you’ve written. Lists, scribbles, some poems written to a lost lover, perhaps…”
“We don’t indulge and we don’t write anything,” screeched the miniscule elderly woman. And, after darting a look at all the others as if to verify her claim, she added,
“We didn’t bring any materials.”
“You could write your material now,” Hadassah said with embarrassment, or perhaps impatience.
“We didn’t bring any pens or paper,” said the woman. She didn’t squeak this time. Her voice was assured, although her eyes were still dimmed by age. “We don’t give a rat’s ass about all that crap. I heard you like putting things in boxes from time to time, so we put all our extra candy in that box there, the stuff our families keep showering us with out of guilt. You have your Toblerones in there, some Mozartkugels too, good stuff – all for you, help yourself.”
Hadassah shuddered as she opened the box. The smell of chocolate invaded her nose. She took a round Mozartkugel, removed the tinfoil wrapping and sucked the marzipan into her mouth. She had abstained from chocolate for so many years that she’d forgotten why. Now she remembered.
“So… what are we going to do here, in our writing workshop meetings?” She turned to the miniscule elderly woman as she peeled a second golden ball.
“Nothing, dearie! You eat all the chocolate you want, and we’ll sit here and rest from all the lessons and activities they’ve been stuffing down our throats.”
“But what products will result? What outcomes? A printed volume? Even a few stapled pages showing some development, documenting a process?” The words swirled and gurgled in Hadassah’s mouth, which was too full of savory chocolate and pistachios.
“How will we separate the darkness from the light?” she asked, gulping down the sweet, brown paste.
“Shh…!” the tiny old woman murmured, her eyes glinting this time. “It’s all right. You get some rest too, sweetie.”
The elderly women sat in their chairs with utter abandonment, watching the panoramic view through the giant windows: towers and houses and roads and a narrow strip of the sea. Hadassah looked at the skyline, too, as she chewed more chocolate. Suddenly it occurred to her that she had never seen such a beautiful view, and if she had, she must have forgotten. Everything was so perfect at this moment: the sight and the taste, and, likewise, the silence.
“Our hour is done. Goodbye, dear, see you next week.” The thin voice of the old woman suddenly rose, shattering the serenity.
Hadassah looked at her and saw the old woman’s eyes had dimmed again.
Tears glinted in her own.