By Céline Assayag
Translated from Hebrew by Yaron Regev
My mother invited me to her funeral long before she died. I asked, “Why me?”
She replied, “Because I said so.”
I told her it wasn’t fair, that she had never even wanted me, that she had taken that shot that kills babies.
She said, “All right, because you were stubborn and wouldn’t let go, then.”
She asked me to bring refreshments for the guests. I told her, no way. Not to the cemetery. She said that was how she wanted it.
I asked, “For how many people?”
She said, “Ten.”
“That’s it?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, just, “I’ll see you there,” and hung up.
Somehow, we managed to squeeze the guest list down to ten people. She was late, of course. When she did come, she just looked on from a distance in a car. Our eyes met, but instead of stopping, I saw her tell the driver to keep going. No one else saw her, just me. I wanted to tell everyone she had just passed by in a taxi, but I couldn’t. What would they think of me? The condition, the hospitals, the doctors, identifying the body. I kept quiet. We went to my parents’ house to sit shiva. That night she called and asked for me. I told her she was insane, that everyone was sure she was dead. And where was she? She said she had gone up north and would come back when everyone had gone. I asked her for a phone number so I could call her if anything happened to anyone — to Dad, let’s say. She said there was no need, that she’d know if anything happened.
She never came back after the shiva. She still calls me sometimes, but only at night.
A few days ago, my brother came back late from school, at two o’clock. Mom was angry with him and told him he couldn’t go downstairs to play at four. When we were in our room, he told me he’d found us a new friend. A “real friend”, he said. He didn’t know, then, that his name was Mickey, so he just called him “Buddy”. All that afternoon we were quiet and good and didn’t fight. At four we asked Mom if we could go downstairs and she said we could. We quickly ran downstairs before she remembered she’d forgotten about my brother’s punishment. We went to Mickey’s building. My brother knew he lived in the middle building in the row behind the shoemaker’s shed, but he didn’t know which floor and which apartment.
The stairwell in Mickey’s building was quiet and had a sharp smell of cats. “The smell comes from Mickey’s apartment,” my brother said, because Mickey had told him they had lots of cats in their house, and a couple of dogs too. We tried to find where he lived by the smell, which became more and more powerful as we got closer to the third floor. We kept on going, up to the fourth, where the smell wasn’t so strong, so we went back down to the third. We listened at the doors, and when we couldn’t hear anything, put our ears hard against the doors to try to hear the voices inside. In one house, we heard somebody moving things and making noises on the floor. In another house we heard a radio playing quietly. We could hear no talking in any of the apartments.
Behind the third door we listened at, we heard a cat mewing. My brother rang the doorbell. The key turned, iron banged against iron in the lock, and the sound seemed to echo from every wall. The mom opened the door. She looked at us, and because we didn’t know Mickey’s name, we didn’t know what to say. We just looked back at her. Then she turned her head and called into the apartment, “Mickey!” And he came. He looked older than either my brother or me, and I thought he probably wouldn’t want to be our friend. Also because I was a girl. Then my brother told me Mickey was only a year older than him.
As we went in, I saw on the door that the mom was Violet, and the dad was Allain, and their last name was Burstein. I thought that maybe they came from France or England, and that maybe they knew some of the places Mom had been to, and that they had also had a good life with polite people and lots of cold days, and leaves in red and yellow falling from the trees and getting caught in thin heels. I wanted to know if they had been born in another country and had had to run away like Mom and Grandma because of the Arabs that hated them. And I also wanted to know where Mickey had been born. But their house was so interesting that new questions kept coming into my mind, and because I had so many questions, I wasn’t able to ask anything.
We walked into their living room. The smell of cats was much stronger inside the house and I could barely breathe. After a few minutes I realized I was getting used to it, but I still took tiny little breaths so the smell wouldn’t get inside my body.
There were a lot of things inside their house, and places you could barely squeeze through. And there were cats everywhere. White and black, smooth and furry, cats with spots, little thin ones, and big chubby ones. They were sitting or climbing on all the furniture, on the radiators, the cabinets, the sofa armrests. They were everywhere. I also saw cats on the refrigerator and the kitchen counter, and one was sitting in a cabinet over the sink that didn’t have a door. Cats were walking everywhere, mewing, purring, rubbing against each other and my legs and my brother’s legs.
Suddenly, with the speed of movement only a cat can achieve, a cat shot across the living room as another cat ran after him. The first cat stopped, raised its tail as high and tall as it would go, and his fur stood up. We can’t have cats in our house because my little brother is allergic to their hair, and to dust, too. Cats make him sneeze without stopping until he finds it hard to breathe. Mom says it makes him short of breath. Still, we have a dog now and her name is Lu. We had other dogs before her but only for a few days because Mom didn’t want them in the house. I tell Violet we have a dog named Lu. She smiles and looks happy when I tell her that.
On the balcony that runs off their living room there is a writing desk and a chair and long shelves on the wall with lots of books. I see a cat jumping on the chair, climbing up to the table, walking like a king, scattering pages that slowly flutter to the floor.
Violet says, “Flower, get down from there, girl.”
“What? It’s a she-cat? How can you tell them apart?”
Violet smiles indulgently. “That one is Rose, and the other one is Nicole.”
Ringo and John emerge from the corridor, and after them come three dogs: Aristotle, Socrates and Plato. So many dogs and cats. It’s as if the house belongs to them and not to a family of people. And it’s like a movie in real life. Violet carries on introducing them to me: Tzvika and Tip on the kitchen windowsill. As I look at them they’re suddenly gone. They don’t fall, they’ve just gone to visit the neighbors’ houses, to scrounge a bite to eat and then come back.
“And if you see a little kitten or a puppy dog,” Violet says, “bring them to me because they can’t be on their own.” Also, if we see any kind of wounded animal, even a bird, Violet tells us we should bring them too. She’ll care for them, find them a home, a warm home. And I thought about winters in bed and feet moving quickly to keep warm. And if she can’t find them a warm home, they’ll just stay here with all the others.
While Violet shows me all the cats, my brother and Mickey are sitting on the sofa. Mickey is talking about the car he is going to build with a real engine, only small. The sort of car he’ll be able to drive down Mish’ol Eyal all the way to Levi Eshkol Park. My brother is looking only at Mickey, because he wants Mickey to see he is interested only in him, and he also knows that Mickey doesn’t like having so many animals in his house. Then Mickey says he is going to his Dad’s store and asks if we want to go with him. His dad has a hardware store. My brother looks at me and sees that I want to go, and Mickey says, “Maybe your sister wants to stay here with all these stinking cats.” And his mom doesn’t say anything when he says that nasty word. We leave Mickey’s house and I go back to breathing normally.
That was the first time we went to the store, and we went there a lot more times after that until Allain sold it. The store was stacked with things, almost like their house was stacked with stuff, and you could hardly squeeze your way in there, either. It had lots of screw boxes, the sort that you could hear the screws rattling in when you opened them, and you could tell if they were little or big by the sound they made. There were also orange and green and transparent pipes, tubes and hoses rolled up like huge snails, big black and orange trash containers, and mixed-up smells redolent of color and rubber.
There was so much stuff, it concealed all the windows, and only a faint light from the lamp in the ceiling lit the store. There was a machine that could make copies of keys. You put a smooth key blank on one end of the machine, called a master, and the key you wanted to duplicate on the other, and the machine copied it. It was like magic. I loved the smell in the store, and I always thought how smart Mickey’s dad was because people came to see him all the time, asking him how to do things. Allain also knew a lot of languages, and after he sold the store he started working as a receptionist at the Pan American Hotel at our beach. Sometimes, when we went to the store with Mickey, Allain would give us screws and nails and even some ball bearings and rubber bands. Allain sold the store because he owed a lot of money to suppliers. He paid back the debts and bought a new Alfa Romeo with the money he had left.
A few years after that, when I was twelve, Allain took us to the movies in Tel Aviv in his new Alfa Romeo. He drove real fast and was making it through traffic lights just before they turned red. My brother sat beside me and told me it was called, “breezing through the traffic lights,” and I was afraid because Allain was driving so fast and passing real close to other cars. Then, as we were driving through The Kings of Israel Square, I saw the car on our right coming closer and closer. I just hoped we’d get past it safely but we didn’t and it crashed into us, sending our car spinning out of control. All I remember is that I couldn’t see anything until our car stopped against a post, and when it did, I thought that maybe we were dead already — and how could you even know if you’re really dead when you’re dead?
The spinning made the door on the driver’s side open and Mickey, who had been sitting there, fell out onto the road. It was only later we found out that when Mickey fell out, a bus coming along on the other side just managed to stop in time before it ran him over. Mickey got up and ran to us and we could see the bus driver shouting something at him and making these gestures in the air with his hands. Then he drove on and my brother asked Mickey where he had come from, and Mickey said he had been thrown into some bushes. And then Allain crawled out of the car, trembling, and told us to go to Asuta hospital in Jabotinsky Street and wait for him there. He explained to Mickey how to get there because Mickey was his son and understood him better than we did, but then we got lost on the way and saw a clinic that was closed and we thought it was the hospital. But there wasn’t anyone there and we kept on searching in streets that we didn’t know, and I got to thinking that nothing would ever scare me again. Then we arrived at Asuta and there, too, everything was empty and we waited and waited. At eleven that night Allain still hadn’t come so we decided to walk all the way back to Bat Yam.
Maybe a year after the accident, just before Mickey joined the army, Allain suddenly died and I tried to remember how my body had felt in the accident, and I realized I didn’t have a memory of a blow, or of the way to the hospital, or whether or not we had spoken, and if we had, about what, and that when we were alone, we had agreed that the whole thing was a secret. We made the agreement, maybe before we went home, maybe in the stairwell, or maybe we didn’t actually say it at all because we knew we’d never tell anyone. And I didn’t know, back then, that it would be our last secret.
Saturday morning. We get up early. Mom dresses us in our good clothes. The nicest we have. She and dad wear good clothes too, and Mom even puts makeup on. She is wearing lipstick and rouge and has drawn a red line over her eyes. She looks like she’s wearing a costume to me.
It’s hot. We walk through Bar Ilan Boulevard which leads onto Daniel Boulevard. The boulevards have playgrounds made of iron you can climb on, ladders that connect to each other, and one large iron wall that you can climb. It gets warm in the sun and leaves your hands smelling like rust. The trees in the boulevard are young and need to grow in the heat. They don’t give enough shade for the children who are playing, and there are no pavements in the boulevards, only a white, hard sand that will one day be buried under a gray concrete pavement that will, in its turn, be taken apart and changed for a red, interlocking concrete pavement that will itself, many years later, be changed to a gray pavement with shades of blue and a single row of dark blue across all the boulevards. And swings and colorful plastic slides will replace the iron playground equipment, and iron fences painted green and brown will line beds of flowers, and there will be lots of shade provided by the trees that will have lived all those years. They will shade the boulevards and the new generations of children.
We walk for half an hour, with Dad always a few steps ahead. His back, I will remember in many different ways. He never turns to make sure we’re still behind him.
In the last boulevard we see a new playground with two ladders that connect at their ends to a circle from the center of which descends a pole you can slide down like a fireman. My brother and I want to climb it, but if we run to it now, Dad will be angry. When everyone is busy we’ll run here, my brother tells me. I love him. Sometimes I think I’m him. I want us to run for ever and never come back to all this.
We get to Aunt Clara’s house. Her son, Itzik, is having his bar mitzvah and everyone’s there. Other children want to play with us, but we don’t want to play with them. We take some cookies and hide from everyone behind the sofa. When no one is looking, my brother takes their fish out of the aquarium and hides them in our pockets. In one pocket I have an orange fish, and in the other a white fish with black eyes. When we are sure no one is looking for us anymore we go outside and run to the playground in the boulevard. The fish are jumping in my pockets and I pet them until they get used to me. We quickly climb the playground thing, get to the top and sit on the circle, our legs in the air. It’s high and I’m a little afraid, but my brother dangles his legs quickly. He’s not afraid. So I’m not afraid either.
Then he says that if I want, he can swing me. He says he’ll put his legs between the rungs of the ladder and I’ll catch his hands and my whole body will be in the air and he’ll swing me. “Sure. I want to,” I say. He goes back to the ladder and leans with his tummy on the circle. He tells me to hang from the circle with my hands, then let go with one hand and grab his. Then do the same with the other hand. We do it. He’s strong. I shout to him, “I’m in the air.”
He says, “Now I’ll swing you.”
He moves his hands slowly as he starts to swing me, but our hands are all sweaty. I’m afraid I’m going to slip.
“Pull me back,” I tell him. “Pull me back! I’m slipping!”
He doesn’t have time to answer. I’m slipping. I see him getting further away from me. His face is twisting into a scream, but his scream is silent. Everything is silent. I fall to the ground. I look up and I can’t see him, and I can’t move either. He is gone but then comes back with Mom and Dad. I’m taken to the hospital. The doctor says my elbow has been smashed. They put a plaster cast on me, which looks like a shirt and wraps my body and arm too. My arm is pressed against my body, but I feel I can move it. Each time I do, though, my body makes it hurt.
When we get home Mom and Dad are very angry at my brother. That night, when we’re alone in our room, I put my healthy hand into my pocket and take out the fish. I tell my brother that one fish is dead so the other one must be, too. I hear him crying, and I’m crying too, but I hold the voice inside. He says that what happened to me was because of him, and that it was a punishment from God and that he wished it had been him instead. I’m sad that he feels that way, but my arm is hurting because when I lie on my back it’s completely loose. I tell him my arm is moving inside the cast and that it hurts, and then I let the sound of the crying out. He gets up, goes out of the room, and wakes Mom. We go to the hospital again. Mom is angry with the doctor. They change the shape of the cast, and now it holds my whole arm from the shoulder down, and it’s hanging from a strap that is wrapped around my neck. Now my arm can hardly move and it hurts less.
There are things you can’t see in your memory but you can still hear. A belt being pulled through the loops in trousers, doors closing — and the sound of whipping. What were the events that led to it? How had it been carried out? Maybe my brother had laughed. I can still see him sneaking a smile at me on his way to the room. There is no sound of crying. Only movements without sounds, as if someone has switched off the sound. Dad leaving the room on his own. I don’t remember when my brother came out, or whether his eyes were red or not, and if it all happened after the fall. What was I doing? Where was I sitting? What did I feel? Was someone screaming? Where are the sounds? And where was Mom? I will ask my brother many years later.
“She cooperated,” he will say. This usually happened in the good times they had between them. And now that I think about it, there were more than a few of those. And he will send me a video in which he is imitating her standing at the door. “Here, look, this was how she stood and watched.” Like her, he stands with all his weight on one foot. “Remember the sliding door? The one that opened to the corridor? So there she stood, leaning on the jamb,” he says. And like her, he starts screaming.
“Not on the head, Michael! Not on the head!”