By Avital Gad-Cykman
When she, all large eyes and frail bones, arrived, a man in uniform helped her onto the dock and asked her in Yiddish, “Vi iz ayer nomen?”
“My name is Hela Herstat.”
The little man smiled under his grizzled beard. Hela had a classic sound to it, he said, but the age of the European superiority had died in the camps. She shouldn’t keep a remembrance from a war that had humiliated all sides. Ela, a similar name, was a lovely tree and also meant “goddess” in Hebrew.
Her translucent skin stretched over her high cheekbones, as she nodded slowly at the mention of her survival. Having outlived her parents and little sister, losing her name would be the least of her losses.
Fifteen minutes later, she spelled her name for the man who registered the newcomers: “E-L-A.”
“Beautiful,” he rejoiced. “Will you keep your last name?”
“For a while.” The delicate raise of her lips was as elegant as the swaying of her head. Her gestures had more to do with different times than with her current state.
“Off you go to Eilon, a new town in the Negev desert,” the clerk said.
“I have family in Haifa,” she said softly.
“Do they have a place for you?”
So she set her gloomy gaze on the Mediterranean as she departed from another safe place, each parting harder than the one before.
She stepped toward the bus in a swan-like motion, as if many heads would turn after her. Under her sea-beaten clothes and between her tattered skin and visible bones, beauty still bloomed.
She was a woman in her early thirties, according to her documents, but had yet to grow roots.
Soon after her arrival, Ela settled in with a rather nice man, a widower she called by his last name, Shapiro. Everybody called him that. He entered her shack one night and never left.
They spoke a broken Hebrew with each other: they couldn’t bear the sound of any other language. If he hadn’t found her, he said, his memories would have tortured him to death. Even lying beside her, he had dreams about the wife he had married in Europe before the war. At times, he cried “Perla” in his sleep, and Ela cringed but stayed silent.
She started sewing children’s clothes as a cheaper option to the clothes in stores. Shapiro worked as a mechanic and was always on time for dinner.
They found inventive ways to offset their lack of money: borrowing the already read weekend papers from their neighbors and exchanging spices, which they grew in vases, for fruit.
Their asbestos roof doubled the heat inside their one-room shack as they breathed the dry air blowing from the dunes. Ela wore sleeveless dresses, but her cheeks burnt and she frequently washed her underarms. She mopped the dust twice a day and he brought ice cubes for their water. Nothing went to waste, since they fed all leftovers to three stray cats.
Both Ela and one of the cats got pregnant in April. The couple kept one kitten and set the others free.
When her baby-boy, Victor, was born, she felt a root growing from her into that strange soil. As she was herself, however, and not a new person, even then, she asked everybody to call her Hela, after all.
At first, Victor was round and bald, a miniature of Shapiro. They took him in their arms and felt at home and at peace. With his birth, they became a splitting amoeba, three parts of the same being.
Once they could afford it, they moved to a little house in the heart of Eilon.
Life click-clacked on pleasantly until they realized their baby was different from others, and not exactly like either of them. He was slow, he didn’t eat enough, and he contorted his sweet little body until his arms and legs squeezed his belly as he cried. He looked like a beginner at being a baby.
Since they couldn’t do much about it, they simply slowed down to adjust their rhythm to his. After having fled from the horror, then struggling very hard to adjust, they could finally hear the sea waves and watch their grapevines grow.
They wished they could tell suspicious neighbors that they were good parents and never caused the baby any pain. But Victor cried so much and so loudly, nobody would have believed them.
The baby’s name now hurt them too. They had named him Victor hoping for better times and small victories, but now it was impossible. Fortunately, Victor didn’t pay any more attention to his name than to any other word. He didn’t know what words stood for. He occasionally made little cries like “baba” and “mama.” Hela and Shapiro believed he was learning to speak, but he did not expand from syllables to vocabulary.
Some days they dressed Victor up and took him out in his stroller. He was a year old, the same as many babies in the neighborhood. Everybody else's parents, Dana’s, Dudu’s, and Seadia’s, agreed their little ones needed fresh air. But more than anything, the parents delighted in showing off their babies and glorying in their achievements.
Hela and Shapiro avoided the crowded sidewalks and instead enjoyed their private road, as they eyed each other and the baby who eyed them too, as if the three of them shared a secret.
When they took the baby for a check-up, they found that his weight was low, as they had suspected. He wasn’t fond of masticating, so he spat out half his food. Shapiro always said that Hela and Victor looked like featherless chicks. He said it with a fond smile, as if he wouldn’t have it any other way.
They whispered their thoughts about their next step, as if someone was listening and judging. It took them two days to decide it was time to use the rent coming from the shack they had left for their current house. If Victor had been faster, like most small boys, the money would have allowed them to have a second baby. But Hela said, “So what? This family is what we have.”
Their past drained their faith and made them cautious, but they believed in science. They especially trusted the minds of the scientists who worked for the famous Weitzman Institute, the best of the best, top-notch geniuses, heroes who had taught the country to work barren lands, raise crops of new and exciting fruit, and win the battle against scores of illnesses.
And yet, they didn’t want Victor to be the subject of painful tests. When under pressure, he cried and entangled his arms and legs until his body turned into a tight knot. Hela cried with him then, and Shapiro would have, if he had remembered how. He hadn’t shed tears since the shock of losing his wife, Perla.
Finally, they took Victor to an expensive famous doctor, who agreed to avoid painful tests. He suggested a treatment with medication, and listened to their great number of questions. A paragon of patience, he said those pills were the opposite of the medication for hyperactivity.
Shapiro blinked. “Victor doesn’t need to be more active. He’s always busy, in his way.”
“He’ll tie his shoes at the age of six or seven, speak only by then, stop wetting his bed at ten, repeat years of school,” the doctor said, restating old conclusions.
Hela and Shapiro eyed one another and the baby, who reacted to the attention with a wide, joyful smile.
“A grapevine takes ten years to give grapes, but we planted grapes and not corn anyway,” Shapiro said.
“For a reason,” Hela agreed.
Victor had just turned five the day he squatted on the ground among the thick carpet of yellow cowslips. He could speak already, earlier than expected originally. He stretched his hands toward the shadow that the stone arch in front of him was throwing toward the west. His shirt was green, and the back of his head looked like a large kiwi set on a leaf. He waved at Hela and Shapiro.
The pillars and arch stood in the bald spot between the trees, ruins of old beauty so detached from the park that their isolation rendered them beautiful again. The townspeople knew the pillars and arch were Greek antiquities by the way they caught truths that lingered. A temple had stood there, a shrine for the worship of pagan gods. Their provenance had become common knowledge, just like the facts that oranges have vitamin C and certain flowers help people sleep or clear the mind.
The place had caused controversy, too. One opponent had suggested that those large stones were part of Moshe Dayan’s illegal antique collection and not a Greek temple. “Moshe Dayan feels like the emperor of Israel,” the politician said.
The elders replied that Moshe Dayan had not been around as long as those stones had. Some of them remembered the ruins with the cowslips around them from their childhood.
Hela and Shapiro placed the food on the stone picnic table and sat on the stone bench. Their thighs and their arms touched as a way of reassuring one another.
Victor waved at his parents, then murmured to the pillar. Hela closed her eyes; the boy was speaking to himself. He hadn’t slept in a week and had started having hallucinations. And it wasn’t the worst of it. He had watched their cat, named Twenty-Seven, give birth, and before his parents could stop him, he’d grabbed a kitten from the bundle and licked the placenta off it, the way Twenty-Seven had done with her first-born.
Hela had mopped his face and passed her fingers over his short, thorny hair. She looked up because God might have been up there after all, and she raised her voice: “Why, why, why, why?”
“Victor is fine. The placenta is good for the skin,” Shapiro told her with a smile. “He’ll have beautiful skin.”
Hela laughed through her tears.
The neighborhood children nicknamed Victor “Shoestring” because he was as stupid as a shoe and as long as a shoestring. Fortunately, he preferred plants to children. He spent hours tracing the grapevine’s twigs, plucking weeds, and digging around the trees to allow them more air and water.
And now he was not talking alone among the cowslips as Hela and Shapiro thought. He spoke with a woman who was smiling at him out of his parents’ sight and saying, “Hello, kiwi boy.”
“What’s kiwi?” he asked.
“A fruit with hair like yours,” she said, as she chewed on the yellow petals of the cowslips she was holding.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“It’s good for the brain,” she said, plucking a flower out of the green calyx.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know. They’re yellow.”
“Healthy minds, healthy bodies. It’s a Greek expression.”
Hela and Shapiro found him curled around a pillar with a smile on his silken face as he talked in his sleep in a strange language, maybe Greek. They admired the words without understanding them.
School started. Victor tried his best, like always, but when Teacher Virginia asked the class to solve a math problem, he counted up to eleven, and his mind coiled itself around the number and broke it into syllables.
Beside him, Dana, a year younger, said “Three-hundred and seventy-five.” But the teacher said she was wrong.
Victor tried to skip the number eleven and go on, at least up to one hundred. The teacher had explained he shouldn’t count but calculate, but he was better at counting. Eleven looked like sideburns, he thought. Dana's father had them. Shapiro, his father, was bald, so he didn’t. If only he could forget about sideburns, he would be able to continue counting. When Dana’s father spoke, his sideburns moved like hairy creatures. Twelve. The number was twelve. “Twelve,” he said.
The class laughed.
“Hush. I repeat: two thousand four hundred and fifty, divided by seven,” Virginia said.
Her blonde hair was as thin as a veil. Victor lowered his face and examined his long fingers. He counted to twelve again, and tried to imagine how many numbers stood on the way to two thousand.
“Shoestring!” whispered Meir, who sat in front of him.
Victor sniffed at the mint scent of the other boy’s bubblegum.
“Three hundred and fifty,” said Dudu, the skinny boy from the other row.
The teacher turned to Dudu with a smile that exposed her rabbit-like front teeth. The teacher’s shirt was pink and had small woolen balls, like a soft towel.
“Correct,” she said.
Victor shrugged his shoulders. He thought about bathrobes. They too were made of towels; he was quite sure of that.
School went on, and Hela and Shapiro had to step in. Hela shifted her gaze from Victor, who was hiding behind Shapiro, to Virginia and the director. “He’s already growing facial hair,” she said. The purple circles under Hela’s eyes gave color to her clear face. The translucent-white skin of her neck was in synchrony with the crystal swan the director had chosen for his desk.
“There is no way he can quit before completing primary school,” the director said as he stretched his thick waist in the tight suit. His office was white-washed, adorned with black and white photographs of graduated classes and ex-pupils killed in the 1956 war.
Unlike most of the students studying in his class or starring on the walls, Victor had been crawling through each school year. The only school for children with special needs was too far from Eilon.
“He tries hard,” Virginia said, her gaze on the floor.
Hela smiled at her. The young woman’s inhibition could only come from enormous loneliness.
“He should start preparing for life, and school doesn’t help him. What will he do after we’re gone?” Shapiro said. He was getting old faster than his age should have dictated, quicker than Hela. The hair at the back of his head was mostly white.
“I’ll have to consider the situation,” the director said slowly. “We’ll see.”
Hela went to the director’s office after school. She closed the door behind her, approached him behind his desk, and looked straight into his widening eyes. “School is a waste of time for Victor,” she said.
“You will have a hard time convincing me that school is a waste of time for anyone,” he told her in an unsteady voice.
She stood so close to him that the scent of his shaving lotion and a salami sandwich curled around them both. She trembled. “You could arrive at the decision that this school won’t make him repeat classes anymore,” she said and unbuttoned the top button of her dress.
He faced her, then placed his hands on her shoulders. “Yes?”
“Yes,” she whispered, unbuttoning another button, almost exposing the rising line of her breasts.
“It’s not that I haven’t considered it,” the director said, his Adam’s apple jumping up and down like a bird against a closed window. His hands reached for her, hesitated, and started buttoning up her dress.
She looked down at his thick fingers still on the buttons of her dress. “You have?” she asked with a slight voice.
“Perhaps, because he’s a special case, he should pass where others can’t,” the director said. “But school is a protective environment.”
She placed her fingers on his as he buttoned up the last button. The heat on her face told her that her skin had turned burgundy. “He deserves your help,” she said, struggling to speak clearly.
“Hela, dear, beautiful Hela—” the director said as he opened the door and signaled for her to leave.
“Please, think about him,” she said on her way out.
Her sense of relief did not please her. She needed to suffer for Victor to guarantee his happiness, and the director had refused her sacrifice. It occurred to her that his touch hadn’t been unpleasant. What kind of sacrifice would that be? She would have died for Victor, but that was a different kind of dying.
“Victor won’t suffer any further prolongation of his studies,” Virginia told Hela later that month.
“What a relief. This is so… And Shapiro will help him with work,” Hela said, her eyes on Virginia’s high forehead. She still couldn’t look at anyone’s eyes.
“I’m sure he will work very hard, as he does here at school,” Virginia said.
“It’s only that we can only go on for so long. He must learn to survive on his own.”
Virginia studied Hela’s troubled face. “Hela, you don’t have to worry about him so much. One day he’ll make a perfect husband.”
Victor stood inside his father’s workplace, a mechanic’s office. His body stretched out of his blue overalls like wooden poles holding up a Boy Scout tent.
Shapiro showed him the best ways to fix car engines, believing that if Victor had learned to take good care of their garden, he was able to understand simple instructions.
But while Victor found mechanics confusing, he instinctively knew what plants needed. He took pleasure in watering, mowing, planting, and picking fruit. He talked little, and when he did, it usually concerned gardening, fruits and flowers, lawns, and weeds. After his failed attempt as a mechanic, he asked his father if he could go back home.
“He can work as a gardener, if he wants,” Hela said to Shapiro.
“All right. We should try everything possible. You never know what the future will bring.”
“He’ll be fine,” Hela said. People waved at Victor on the street, smiled at him at the store. They must have grown to appreciate his ingenuity, sympathy, and everything she treasured about him. She and Shapiro hoped the neighbors would hire Victor and give him some pocket money, so he’d feel worthy.
“We’ve lived here beside the same neighbors since our first days in Eilon,” Shapiro recalled.
“I know Dana’s parents, Dudu’s parents, Ovadia and Kochava, Shlomo’s adoptive parents, and Virginia…” Victor counted on his fingers.
The three of them had mostly kept to themselves, but so did Dana’s mother and the young, shy teacher, Virginia, Hela considered. In short, they belonged.
Unfortunately, the neighbors were too protective about their gardens to employ Victor. To Hela and Shapiro they said they were afraid the boy would injure himself with the gardening tools.
Hela and Shapiro didn’t argue. They gave up on empathy and wouldn’t take charity.
“In such a dry land, people treat plants like babies,” Hela said to Shapiro.
“They could trust Victor with either.” Shapiro sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
Victor stayed at home until they could find another solution. In the meanwhile, Hela helped him read the papers and showed him the few family albums that had survived the horror.
“Is she pretty?” she asked Victor when they leafed through Shapiro’s thin album and glimpsed a photo of his first wife.
Victor studied Perla. “Yes. Like Virginia,” he said. And indeed, a certain similarity caught Hela’s eyes. “Can I go to the garden now?” he asked.
That night, she and Shapiro decided to let Victor take care of their garden all by himself, and imagined this would cause the neighbors to lust after their blooming plants and neat lawn.
Meir’s parents were the first to hire Victor for an hour or two. The others followed.
Shapiro and Hela went on living as extensions of one another, splitting for work only to be drawn back with a greater force each day.
On their fifteenth anniversary, counted from the day he entered her shack, Shapiro said they were meant for each other.
Hela smiled and said, “We’ve had a good life, Shapiro.” Only Perla had called him by his first name, Yankel, so Hela didn’t take possession of that name. She felt second, not first. This feeling never got better, since Perla stayed young in the old photo album, and her full, dark hair gleamed with light even when Hela and Shapiro made love.
One day in April, Virginia stopped by to admire the garden. Victor climbed on the lower branches of the guava tree as she approached the fence.
“The garden is lovely,” she said to the guava tree’s branches.
Victor coughed. The black and white cat, Thirty-Nine, escaped from behind him.
“Just look at these roses,” Virginia went on, with a small curl of her pink rose-painted lips.
Victor coughed louder.
He rolled down the tree. He would have fallen if a branch hadn’t stuck up his shirt, helping him to steady himself on the ground. “Hello,” he said.
Later that day, he chose three roses, prepared them to be displayed, and left them by her door.
Virginia stepped on them as she came out barefoot to see what the noise was all about. Victor squatted behind the green fence and watched her pick up the crushed roses while raising one foot after the other, saving what she could. He nodded with delight because the roses he’d left for her had no thorns.
“Victor,” she said. “Please come in. You don’t want to stay out there by yourself. Come on, I’d like some company.”
Sometime after that, Victor all but moved in with Virginia, Hela woke with a cry trembling in her ears, and then smiled, remembering Victor wasn’t crying anymore. She rolled over. Shapiro’s sleeping face looked sweet and wholesome, like Victor’s, and now she wasn’t sure if he was the one who’d cried or if it was she. He opened his eyes and embraced her.
In the morning, she put a steaming cup of coffee in front of him, and held a cup of tea to her lips.
“What?” Shapiro asked, although she hadn’t said anything.
“If Perla came here, you know, if she appeared one day — because people do; you hear stories — I want you to know that I would take her in.”
Shapiro wagged his head. “Nobody’s coming,” he said.
Hela put her cup of tea on the table. “Family is everything. It is all we have in life, and whoever survives is welcome.”
He looked at her narrowing pupils. “It's the two of us, Hela. It’s the two of us, and this is it, you and me.”
“I want us to grow old together, old enough to lose our memory,” she said quietly.
“We are old,” he said.