Mercy

 


Photo: Canetti Studio

Mercy

By Dorit Shiloh

Translated from Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan

 

When it comes to Vincent I have trouble deciding what to look at, which part of his body would show me the real him. Some days he walks into my classroom carrying a book, notebook, and pen, and all I see are his white fingers with the pointy knuckles. Other days, as I stand by the blackboard, he fixes his iron-blue eyes on me, flanked with gray laugh wrinkles, and I can see nothing but his gaze. Occasionally, when the sun sets early, and the cold and darkness invade our classroom, he remains seated until the last student leaves, then stands up and walks slowly in his white robe toward the window on my right. In those moments, I can’t help but stare at the beaded belt tied carelessly around his waist, dangling down to his sandals. As he walks, the wooden beads chatter and clatter. One time, he placed his palm on the windowpane and said, “I swear, when God invented winter, he didn’t consider poor Dominican monks who have to wear sandals year round.”
 
Just like after every class, that winter’s day Vincent asked if I wanted to take a walk through town. And I, who only come to Jerusalem to teach my bizarre Hebrew class at the Catholic school, knew that only a man wearing a dress could, time after time, make me say “Yes.”
 
“Let’s walk along the Old City walls today, but only from the outside. That’s the beauty of Jerusalem—the asphalt and impatient Israeli drivers on one side, and these tall stones on the other.” When you’re a handsome thirty-four-year-old monk, you can say things like that without people thinking you’re an idiot. People already assume something about you is off. While I swayed along on my uncomfortable high heels, Vincent stopped and asked, “So how are you? You haven’t been here in so long, and I was used to seeing you every week.”
 
“Better,” I answered, smiling meekly. “Getting stronger. These operations aren’t as complicated as they used to be.”
 
“You’re looking better,” he said, fixing his iron blue on me. “You got your color back.”
 
“That’s because when they took the uterus and the tumors out, my bleeding stopped. I’m no longer anemic. Color in exchange for a womb—pretty good deal, huh?”
 
Vincent looked at me silently. He could afford to look. He was protected by a fortified wall of monkhood, almost as tall as the Old City walls. After a long silence, he said, “You see that traffic light over there? Not the close one, the one up by the hill. I’ll let you do the ‘Lord have mercy’ act until we get there, and then we’ll see.”
 
“What’s there to see? I’m a forty-year-old, divorced Hebrew teacher with no children and now no uterus, either.”
 
“That’s fine,” he said with his usual equanimity, which could drive me nuts. “That’s fine. Until we reach that traffic light, then it’s my turn to talk.”
 
I didn’t even feel like hearing him talk. All I felt like doing was shouting at him, “And what’s going to happen when we reach that traffic light? Are you going to strip out of that ridiculous robe and make a baby with me? You guys already got one virgin pregnant, and we Jews also had a few barren women bearing children, so how about one more for the tally?”
 
But instead I said nothing, thinking how silly it was to wear such uncomfortable boots just to impress a Catholic monk, and one who liked strolling, no less.
 
“Did you know that in Hebrew the word ‘mercy’comes from the same root as the word for uterus?” I said, getting a little sadder. “It’s beautiful. Especially when you consider that the Greek word for uterus is the basis for the word ‘hysteria.’”
 
“I think you’ve told me that before,” he said, not asking the grammatical and etymological questions he would have bombarded me with if we were in our usual roles of teacher and student.
 
We walked on in silence, a silence marked by the ceaseless chatter of his wooden beads, the faltering clacking of my heels, and the buzzing of heavy traffic. I had nothing to say to him and couldn’t concentrate on a thing beyond these noises, which blended so naturally into the great noise that was me.
 
“I have a child,” he suddenly offered, hastening his footsteps.
 
“Excuse me?”
 
“I have a child. A son. He’ll be ten this year.”
 
“Where is he?”
 
“Back home, in Dublin.”
 
I had no idea what to say, let alone what to ask. The cacophonous harmony around me evaporated at once and my consciousness surrendered to the following insight: Even monks could have kids. These are the words that rose in my mind, and I was immediately filled with shame, my eyes fixing on the traffic light.
 
“I was wondering whether to commit to the church and took some time off from the seminary. My son was born after I took the monastic vows.”
 
I said nothing, assuming he would keep talking. This wasn’t the kind of story one stopped in the middle. But Vincent kept walking wordlessly, occasionally turning to look at me. I envied him for having a faded white robe to hide in.
 
“But just because I have a child doesn’t mean I’m a parent,” he finally said.
 
“I understand.”
 
“Do you?” A little smile stretched his lips.
 
“What can I say? I’m not sure about anything anymore, but I imagine that being a Dominican monk for the past decade didn’t leave you a lot of time to be a family man.”
 
I glanced at the Jerusalem hill on our right, a brown-gray rain-drenched hill, and yearned for his city, Dublin, which was most definitely greener, rainier, more shimmering. Surprisingly, Dublin now seemed less foreign than Jerusalem, even though I’d never been there. I wanted to keep talking to him. To keep going, saying, Yes, in my mind everything is certain and known. I knew, for instance, that he was a monk and an intelligent, well-educated guy who had moved here two years before to learn Hebrew and read the Bible. I knew that whenever he opened his mouth I got sucked into his words and never wanted to stop listening. I knew he was the most whole person I’d ever met, or at least that’s what I’d thought until that point, and I also knew that my soul had bound itself to his. Above all, until now, I’d thought he was barren, too. His iron eyes were what I envisioned when I signed the release form at the hospital, allowing the surgeon to remove this bleeding organ that, month after month—even back when I was still married—had failed to conceive. I signed it and realized I might be better off going away for a while after this nightmare was over. Perhaps to Ireland, why not? Breathe a different air for a year or two. Air that looked and smelled like Vincent.
 
“I’m going back there in a few days. That’s what I wanted to tell you. I’m going to see my son. His mother is sick, and this is the first time since he was born that she’s asked for my help.”
 
Vincent was talking to me as well as to the city of Jerusalem. He talked about his life and about his God who art in heaven. But I was already far away, strolling in comfortable shoes over green hills on the coast of a cold, salty ocean, with a backdrop of floating fishing boats and a silver lighthouse. A ten-year-old boy with iron-blue eyes holds my hand, his other buried in the larger hand of his father, who is wearing a white robe, a beaded belt, and sandals. 
 

Copyright © Dorit Shiloh 2022. Published by arrangement with the Cohen Shiloh Literary Agency.

Dorit Shiloh (the author), after completing her PhD thesis in literature, taught at various universities in France and Israel. A writer, professional editor and translator, she specializes in quality literary translation from French into Hebrew and writes book reviews for Haaretz newspaper. Since 2017, she has been the co-founder and editor of the leading Israeli literary journal HaMussach. Her debut book, The Countdown (2020), was sponsored by the Rabinovitch Foundation and Israel's Ministry of Culture, was awarded the Goldberg Foundation Hebrew Literature Prize for a Debut Book (2021), and was chosen as an Outstanding Book of the Year 2020 by Haaretz.

Yardenne Greenspan (the translator) is a writer and Hebrew translator born in Tel Aviv and based in New York. Her translations have been published by Restless Books, St. Martin’s Press, Akashic, Syracuse University, New Vessel Press, Amazon Crossing, and Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her translation of The Memory Monster by Yishai Sarid was a 2020 New York Times Notable Book. She has an MFA from Columbia University and is a regular contributor to Ploughshares.



 

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