Who are you?
'All foreign languages are sexy,' said Oded, after the film when they sat round a crate on the floor drinking tea out of mugs with animal handles, the three of them divided by only one or two feet of air. They had biscuits with Nutella. Oded was trying not to eat; he felt fat, although he did not say this then, in front of his lover, Ben, who was slender with a v-shaped torso and fine hands.
When Oded undressed, Sarah saw his body for the first time. Hair fanned from his collar-bone like radiator fins; the skin was white.
They lay on the bed. It was 1.30am. Overhead light bathed the room, unnatural for the hour. Ben was on his side, hands folded paw-like before his face. Sarah lay opposite, but Ben was really sleeping and she was not. He moaned, she opened her eyes. She wanted to stay - to sleep with them inside the lemon bed.
In the cinema, Oded had held her hand. He took it three-quarters of the way through the film, possibly out of kindness.
'Who are you?' he said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
'I don’t know... I am always changing,' she replied.
Sarah felt afraid because she could not be the person Oded had met and liked. She wanted him to like her - it was very important - but his question made her feel as if she was no longer there, or at least not in any recognizable form.
(First published by Normblog, 2006)
And the heat is gone
thank God for my heavy hair, the hair that saved me the day the Pole ran off
cursing, leaving me for dead. He thought he could kill me, strong as he was and
weak as he saw me, but not I. Thank God for my thick hair under my tichel, and
now it is keeping me warm.
I turn under the blanket. The dawn is coming; I pull myself
up and open one of the shutters just a crack. Mendel is in the synagogue for
morning prayers. He woke me again today—it’s the same thing every morning,
dragging the negelvaser from under the bed to wash away the spirits of the
night, though he knows my sleep comes in fits, with our youngest not yet
Our patch grows turnips but they’re frozen solid under the
ground. I am strong, though—I can dig them out with a spade, and split wood
with an axe. And this is what I will do now—fetch wood for the fire before my
children wake, so that they don’t open their eyes frozen stiff like three
little fish kept for winter in the shed.
I have to crack ice from the back door to get it open. The
sun is coming now, a sickly round thing, always near the ground, cold as dying
Four logs in the basket. Threads from my shawl catch on the
pile and as I stoop to pull them free I knock the spade from its place against
It’s very quiet; the neighbours are not up. Only dogs
snuffle and yowl; chickens squawk: not yet human sounds. But then I hear
something else—the noise a person makes: boots on cobbles, behind me, like the
other time. Quick, can I turn quick? Can he smell fear, sense it like a dog,
even if I pull my tichel close around my eyes? I reach for the spade, but it
lies beyond my grasp.
And I remember the smell, the way it was that June: the
stench of drink; it fills my nostrils, my empty stomach boils. I feel his
breath again, his voice in my ear: Jew bitch, come on, I know your husband
isn’t here. What’s the matter—too good for me are you? He held my hands
behind me, both in one of his. I, who had been touched by no man but my
husband. And he twisted me round, his other hand beneath my chin: Let’s see
what’s under here he said, and tore my tichel off to show my hair, hidden
since my wedding day.
And under here. He thrust his hand beneath my
Mame, my Pesya cried. Pesya, my first. Her black
eyes that day I will never forget, sitting as she was in her crib by the back
door, where a breeze kept off swampy flies. That a child so young should see
such a thing—so tiny, barely two years old. For shame.
The animal pushed me backwards over the log pile but swayed
and lost his balance from the drink. With my hands free, this was no time for
fear. Night in your house is the time for fear,
quiet with the lamp off when the goyishe taverns close; morning when you rise
to see the Yidden laid out in the street and ask where you will run to next—that
is the time for fear.
fell sideways with the shove I gave him, tripping onto the logs, and I grabbed
the spade, my back against the wall. It was in my hands before he was on his
feet again. I was like Daniel with the lions, but this one I would kill—and I
charged, the metal a sword to cut his heart.
Jewish whore. He came at me. I was not strong
enough. The spade in his hands, he kicked me in the belly and I doubled down
into the muck.
Pesya’s screams—such a noise no mother should ever hear. Mame
she called, standing in her crib, and God in heaven I could not go to her.
Curled on the ground I said the Shema and waited for God to take me. I
saw the raised edge of the spade coming down, and the sun dashing off it
blinded me, and then cold grit in my mouth when I awoke and he was gone.
I thank God for my hair, my thick hair that cushioned me
against the blow. This it was that saved me from the Pole, may he suffer and
remember, the animal who left me there for dead.
in this dawn, I am ready. Two steps take me to the spade. Two steps in less
than one breath and the wooden handle sits firm within my grasp. I plant my
feet square then twist quick as you know, with it raised before me in both
‘Sheina!’ My husband’s terrified eyes. His arm on
mine, which is ready to strike him, the spade aloft, right before his brow.
He forces down my hands, has to prise my fist open till the
spade thuds onto the earth. Mendel is a quiet man: he shakes his head, holding
my arms down by my side.
‘Wife, control yourself. You help no one, letting go this
The ground is blue now as the sun hits. Blue instead of
black—never gold or brown, not like where Avrom our father walked. Where he
walked the sun had fire in it to warm you and there was always bread with sweet
milk to drink.
‘Mame!’ I turn so sharp my neck cricks. Pesya is standing
by the door, her schoolbooks clutched to her chest.
Mendel lets me go; his face is dead.
Pesya is staring as if she does not know I am her mother. I
feel a sickness in my belly worse than the days when I carried her, this child
whose black eyes see too much.
‘Bubele—come here,’ I say. ‘Come. It’s all right.’
Mendel reaches out and grasps her wrist but she twists from
beneath him, hair across her face, glasses off one ear.
‘Pesya!’ I call.
But she’s gone. Run round the side of the house,
used to grasp me with her tiny fingers to try and make me stay, but I couldn’t,
I simply couldn’t.
I can not stand the sound of a baby crying. I tried with
Rachel, I really did, but such an ugly sound, it wore my nerves to shreds.
Three children is a good number, I’ve always said. But over here in England,
alone, with no one but my husband to help—well, I’m sure you can see why I stopped
You have to know what you want in life. Back in
Melbourne they were saying that I was left on the shelf—but marry some
last-chance nebbish just to
please them? No. Steven was perfect: a surgeon, a professional. I knew
he could give me an interesting life—out of the ghetto once and for all.
Mame was against it, of course. She cried for two days—Pesya,
they’ll never accept you—you’ll always be the Jew who stole their son. Oh
the tears, the drama: For Europe you are leaving us—after the blood our
people shed? But what do I remember about Poland? I was barely six when we
given Rachel some vaccination or other—which I’m sure did hurt. But screaming
for two hours? I tried picking her up—thought it would make her stop—and when
she wouldn’t, simply wouldn’t, I phoned Steven and told him that if he did not
come home from work this minute I could not be answerable for what I
And when I breastfed her she bit me,
always wanting more. Besides, being at home with a baby is so dull. So when
she was six weeks old I found a nanny and went back to my job at the theatre
The trouble with Rachel is she’s too sensitive. She needs
to toughen up. Just grit your teeth, I tell her. Even if you don’t
feel like it, force a smile and then you’ll see—already feeling better than
before. What problems does she have? Money, a stable home—everything hers
on a plate—and she’s clever, far more intelligent than me. Better educated too.
I had to work my way up from the typing pool (call it ‘personal assistant’
if you like, but I’m a secretary); she will go to university and have
any life she wants.
I went out to work when Tateh died. Even though I came
third in my matriculating year out of all Australia, I was forced to give up my
university place so that we could eat. Tateh never did much anyway, even when
he was alive: mostly he was silent or in a rage. Once, at dinner, he tore the
cloth from under the plates because Mame smiled at the man who brought us milk.
And it was Mame who helped us with our schoolwork, while Tateh, in the kitchen,
just gazed at the Chumash open in his hands. They often talked of God, my
parents, but what good did it do? I never think of Him… except sometimes, lying
next to Steven, when I can’t sleep… I catch myself reaching into the darkness—pleading—to
what? And then I say: Pesya stop. Religion is for the helpless; don’t go
make your own life, I’ve always said—and drummed it into Rachel too. Be
independent, I tell her. Never rely on a man. When I was young we
had no choice, but now you do.
But does she listen? Oh no. It’s like talking to an idiot.
From an early age she had them sniffing round—she was secretive but I
caught her out—silly neighbourhood boys at the door; darkened rooms at a
school-friend’s house one night as I sat outside in the car (I made her admit
that boys were present when she got home); skulking about in the park before
school. I know—I saw her—even though she lied.
Every time a boy telephoned, or she told me she was going
to a party, it vexed me so that I would cry. I mean, she was too young—leave
it to the sluts in your class, I told her. Concentrate on your work.
Can you blame me? She wasn’t yet 16.
So when he rang yet again one Saturday morning, I could
bear it no more—I had to act. It was just some boy—some useless blond-haired
boy with unformed muscles and too much sweat—phoning again and again. Rachel
was hanging about in the hall, hoping, I suppose, that it was him. I couldn’t
fend him off forever, this yob who would ruin my daughter’s life—but I wasn’t
going to lie.
I don’t know why she got so upset. Your ‘boyfriend’s’ on
the phone, I said, inverted commas in my tone, for he was not, after all, her
boyfriend—at least not yet.
But why did she have to scream? She knows I can’t stand
that sound. Piercing, shrieking stop stop stop, why are you doing this to
me? I rushed towards her, tried to end the dreadful noise, just end it,
threw my arms around her neck. She pushed me away but I held on and she had to
unlace my fingers to throw me off.
I don’t know why I found myself asking for forgiveness. It
was the very drama of the scene, the noise and emotion, the heat. I think I
lost my nerve.
She ran into the bathroom, slamming the door in my
did the trick, though. No more calls, no more parties, no more evenings out.
From then on, after school, she’d sit quietly, studying, in her room. Never a
sound between 4.30 and bed, apart from when she came down to join us for the
sometimes the muscles in my arms spring back clearly I know everything is okay
and I accept the blotting paper skin that is mine, and it’s okay, it’s okay… to
be Rachel… to have such thin membranes across the heart.
we dance, I place a hand upon your neck and lower my eyes; your back and muscles
bounce. I flounce, thinking of rhyme. I’m here.
It’s all in the eyes—can you lock them? Only moments ago,
when… only moments ago, I was thinking ribbons, bright red ribbons down those
blue-vein highways. But if red can flow through them a second longer and I can
close my fingers around yours—if it’s only a second is that really less than a
lifetime?—if I can do this, then I forgive the veins that wanted to leave me
and the red that wanted to escape beautifully down the pink and white blue of
my fairy arms.
Let me close my fingers around yours as you look the other
I can forgive the veins that wanted to leave me if, for
now, you are here, and the street is shared as we walk home and see three birds
together; we see them, these three, high up above us waiting firm—small round
things: I could hold each one. They are mouse brown, waiting as the sun leaves
us, the three on a single branch… waiting. It is their time for rest—it is here
and so are we and time’s come sharp again.
wish as I look through the slats of glass on floor 14 and over the sea, as the
last sun leaves, orange and pale and warm, oh God how I wish… for you, still…
and stop my thoughts because I am sober now: if it weren’t for the wind, the
silence would be death.
Instead, I tear myself to pieces like a rabid dog. I rip
parts of myself until it is unbearable and quite clearly unfeasible that life
could remain. I have white fangs that lash as the sea never does, even its
hurricane spume… Because I am grateful for all you have given me and so hateful
of what it is to be here now.
Marvellous and too precious, unspeakable cityscape beneath;
gorgeous cobalt blue of sea in dark light as sun leaves; and low lamps of a
poor town surround this fourteenth floor. Surely nothing could be so good.
It’s a ribbon road stretching out before me, and the heat
(First published in Mima'amakim, New York, 2011)
The Red Crabs Fit with the Red Earth
The rain forest. Whistles and hums, rustles and calls. I saw something red on the path, crushed, like a big purple eye, and I learned it was the shell of a dead crab. Later, when I saw the crabs alive, they had big pincers and rustled sideways, everywhere in the lush green undergrowth as we walked.
I had on a long-sleeved light blue shirt to stop the mosquitoes. They were many, and I slapped Charo’s back over and over again. The black pinpoints did not move once they had landed. Maybe they were getting ready to suck the blood – snapping their pincers, chomping their jaws, limbering up before the bite.
When I slapped hard, I crushed them every time – sometimes two in one palm – leaving an exploded bloody mess on the skin. I wiped off the blood from my fingers, and the little black legs.
We carried palm leaves to swat, to rustle the air, to keep the mosquitoes away. They buzzed around me just like the others but only on my face. My head was covered in a gold-red scarf tied tight around my hair, my ears and neck. I felt I needed a hat like the ones the old explorers wore, with netting before my eyes.
The others went on ahead. I wanted to slow down. The earth was red, the trees peeled a redness too, and then I understood why the crabs were the only other red thing that I could see. The red crabs fit with the red earth: they had huge frontward eyes but walked sideways. I caught one. It was terribly afraid and tried to scuttle away, hid under dead powder-blue curled-up leaves, but I took a stick and prised it out. It snapped furiously with hard grey pincers, wriggling wildly in the air.
I put the crab down on the red earth near some water and it ran as fast as it could, sideways, waving its open pincers and snapping them to ward off further attack.
Another crab perched on a rock, watching. Several lay dead by the side of the path, I don’t know why. They must have just died – of hunger, loneliness or fear. Who can know why a crab should simply die? I don’t know why but think it a lonely death. There were so many crabs in the forest – but all of them seemed to be alone, apart from a crowd of little black ones scuttling in and out of the holes in the rocks by the water.
As the heat died the path grew darker. We were in overgrowth like deep sea where the sun never came. Life lived above, near the sky, and underneath the worms and crabs and rustling things, the rattles, the hissing and the snakes. There was no path now, just holey grey rocks; grey, dangerous foot-twisting rocks and roots.
And then the water. I heard it first – a splash as they jumped from on high – then I saw the great hole in the earth, filled with emerald water come up from the sea.
“It is very deep,” they said, “you be careful.”
There was no way down and I was afraid to dive.
So I scaled the rocks with Charo – he was not afraid. My white legs gripped, my muscles moved: I was strong and proud. Then, half way, a moment of fear: I turned and asked him how, and he said there was a foothold lower, and from there I could jump.
This, into the emerald water, surrounded by a high wall of rock. The shirt ballooned around me, the water was cool. I was there.
I looked into the blue, the dizzying miles beneath, leading to the ocean and then to the core.
I saw a white cross on the cliff where somebody had died.
Rock slid beneath my feet as I tried to get up. Charo came to me down a sheer face but I climbed on my own until half way when I looked back and saw myself skull-smashed, with no catching arms.
He was behind me, he was holding me; now my legs were strong, my back supple. I was there. The crabs raced away as I put on my shoes.
As we came out of the forest I heard voices – many voices, speaking. Who and what were they? They were the town. This is what the town sounded like. A flurry of voices; a town without machines. This was the sound of humanity.
(first published by Poltroon, London, 2011)
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Ink, Sweat and Tears
The Chain Letters