“Time heals all wounds,” we say. Author Avshalom Kaveh knows this is not the case. The quince was a cure-all to the ancients, but in Kaveh’s twisted world, the fruit takes sides against our natural capacity to forgive and forget. This tragicomic story of angels and human devilry first appeared in Masmerim, one of Israel’s premier showcases for literature and art. This playful story is Kaveh’s first publication in English. (Translated by Stephen Katz.) — Eds.
When he was eight years old, Yochanan Pollack, who got the nickname “Zvil” in the army, fell in love with Egypt’s beauty queen of 1954, Yolanda Gigliotti, who later became known as the singer Dalida. Thirty-eight years later, he took his own life with a shot to the temple while staying at The Freeshooter Hotel in the English town of Bath.
A quarter of an hour before he was born, the angel of legend who slaps the about-to-be-born appeared before him and said: “Reb Zvil, vos makhstu? How do you do, Master Zvil?”
“Abi me zet zikh…the main thing is that we’re seeing each other,” replied Zvil, who put out one of his little hands to protect his left cheek from the anticipated slap. Someone had warned him. He couldn’t remember who.
“Listen,” said the angel calmly, “you surely know that the Children of Israel are a princely people, beloved by my boss, the apple of his heavenly eye.”
The infant’s two shriveled hands moved to cover his eyes. And then the smack landed on the shocked Zvil’s mouth. The slapping angel added salt to his wounds by uttering the notorious explanation from the sources: “Because you are about to enter the world, I hereby cause you to forget all that you have seen.” Since the angel was new at his job, he stole a glance at a card he pulled from his shirt pocket to verify the accuracy of his words. Seeing that all was good, he added in an authoritative voice: “And another thing, Zvil, You are free to go, but do not forget that soon you will be back. Do you hear?”
Zvil did not respond. He had more important things to do during those critical moments.
So the angel turned to his mother, who was groaning in labor, and whispered in her ear, much to the consternation of the midwife, who unsuccessfully tried to get him out into the corridor: “You are responsible for his return to us. Do you hear my words? I said to him: Geyen aher un ahin — go from here to there — ahin un tsurik — there and back again.”
“Okay, okay,” replied the tormented mother, “the main thing now is to get him out of me. Oooofff!”
Zvil stretched his arms forward, drew his head beyond the opening of Aladdin’s Cave, and leapt head-first into the arms of life and the big world. With a quick glance at the calendar hanging askew on the wall, he noted that it was a Thursday.
The sound of that slap reverberated in his head for many years. More important still was the fact that the slap confounded him, causing him to confuse the word “prince” in the slapping angel’s utterance “…a princely people…,” with the word “quince.” Over the course of his life, he frequently found himself arguing over this matter with kindergarten teachers, male and female instructors, supervisors, Chabad Hasidim, chaplains in the armored corps in which he served, overseers of kosher foods, and those who aspired to the rabbinate, and even with the rabbi of the city of Tiberias who married him to his heart’s desire from Kibbutz Hamadia. Only his mother, who was witness to the conversation between him and the slapping angel, and to whom, too, “prince” jumbled together with “quince,” stood behind him to lend support during the ceremony.
The first two days of his life on earth flowed without undue disruption, yet the first Shabbat was awful: a lowly and anemic sun, sighs from here and there. On the next day and on those that followed — during the autumn preceding the rise of the State — there was mediocre food, a shabby, all-the-same wardrobe, handkerchiefs lacking suitable perfume. The whole universe seemed sunken and small of stature, a disheveled modesty, a rumpled existence in which his father would confuse the letters “T” and “Z”: “Zvil, soon we will have a counzry, a big Hebrew counzry, and your school grades will bring us joy, and on holidays we’ll visit your aunt in the kibbuzz, szraight zo the cowshed…” And while the donkeys in the adjacent yard of their teamster neighbor proudly swished their tails while his father lectured, there is no guarantee that they managed to chase away the clouds of Mandate-era flies.
When Zvil turned six, his father dropped out of the picture: He ran off with a distant relative of the singer Netania Davrath to America. His mother took it rather hard; her days turned to night and her nights became one long account of sleepwalking, hair pulling, and moaning. The male neighbors said: “Too bad about him, about the boy. Why darken the days of that handsome, dark child? Why not marry some pushover and leave the boy be?” The neighbor ladies said: “Her lamentations are worse than those heard for the destruction of the Temple. Let her go and work at the chief rabbinate and make some dough from her sorrow.”
Zvil’s two sisters, older than him by five and seven years, were sent to boarding schools. Relatives added to the allowance from the welfare office. Every now and then, his mother would work odd jobs cleaning houses or sometimes sports arenas in which both the shouts of fans and the sorrow of the defeated were now silenced. Yet in all this dusty misery there was one redeeming consolation: Their house was surrounded by a yard aglow with a host of trees that bore grapefruit, lemons, bitter oranges, and, especially, quinces. In autumn, these five quince trees brought forth the most delectable of fruit. Even before they ripened, he would closely observe for hours on end how the fruits’ white and gray fuzz slowly fell away. And though he heard uncomplimentary remarks about them more than once — hard, sour, bitter — he was their loyal supporter and good-will ambassador on every occasion.
The accumulating years allowed Zvil to wax and grow. He stole his first peek at naked girls, snuck into movies during matinees, and took to the streets. On Fridays and Saturdays, his sisters filled the house, pinching him and laughing with him, and sweeping away for a few precious hours their mother’s mournful, permanent shiva. At the onset of the new week, they drove off, leaving behind a trail of despair and promises to hurry back.
Once a month, his father would send him a letter written in a flowing hand in which he prided himself on how he had managed to shove Buck Jones against a wall, arm-wrestle Gary Cooper until he drew blood, and help Montezuma’s daughter across Hollywood’s busy streets. At times, he even sent pictures of movie stars, but for some reason he did not include a picture of Yolanda Gigliotti, the beauty queen whose face Zvil discovered in an issue of the women’s magazine La’Isha as he waited at the barber shop for the barber, who was a good family friend and also a drunkard, but who never took a penny from him for a haircut.
Thereafter, he cut and sometimes simply tore out Dalida’s pictures from the inner pages of the morning and evening papers, and even heard her voice on a scratchy record played by his neighbor, Mrs. Feigenboim, who was one of his mother’s most loyal customers during quince season. Once, he walked into her son Eliezer’s room, who had paid no heed to the nine-year-old tyke until that moment. But when Eliezer noticed the tremble that overwhelmed Zvil at the sound of Dalida’s voice, and spied a few tears in the corners of the youngster’s eyes, he grabbed his hand and said: “From now on, you are my friend. Nothing bad will ever happen to you.”
Eliezer had recently turned nineteen. Because he was an only child whose father had vanished among Europe’s furnaced fields, he was released from the military and began working at Mr. Shteich’s butcher shop. But every night, his feet beat a path from one movie theater to another until he finally joined a club under the guidance of the director David Greenberg, and he even shot a short film using an eight-millimeter camera that garnered Greenberg’s praises.
Eliezer and Zvil became close friends, even though all of the latter’s attention was reserved for Dalida alone. Eliezer promised that one of these days he would introduce them to each other when he shot the film he was planning about the beauty queens of Arab lands. Mrs. Feigenboim, who listened to the conversation between them from behind the door, burst into his room, saying: “Why drive the little one crazy? Who’s going to let you make movies about goyim who want to throw us all into the sea? And why bother with any of this if you’ve already got half a butcher shop in your hands?”
“Don’t interfere, do you hear?! Go and make some compote from Mrs. Pollack’s quinces. What are you waiting for? And besides, it’s Mr. Shteich’s butcher shop and not mine! And besides that, number two, Hitchcock and Truffaut also had day jobs.”
“The first is a scoundrel and the second treif,” his mother screamed. “Just wait until your father comes… ”
Eliezer cut her off: “Don’t curse my future friends! Do you hear, dear Mrs. Feigenboim…?!”
“Abomination! Abomination! Is that what you want? Let me finish. Soon your father will come from over there with a lot of money and buy the butcher shop in installments, all for you. You’ll see!” Before leaving, she pinched Zvil’s cheeks and said: “Today, you brought some good stuff. What wonderful quinces! Don’t forget to take the little basket back.”
And he replied: “Thank you. Thank you, Mrs. Feigenboim. My mother said that it’s for you, for keeps, your basket forever.”
Zvil reached Bath by the postal train that left London, where he worked as a representative of the export company Agrexco. The train left close to midnight, so immediately upon arriving, he went to a hotel near the train station and paid in advance for a week. In the morning, he went to a photo shop, from there to the site of the Roman baths, returned to the hotel, cleaned the pistol that had been with him ever since his military service, drew from his suitcase the small basket that had been given to Mrs. Feigenboim as a gift, and then rejected — the little basket from which he had never parted ever since he had left home — and sat for a long hour in the narrow salon of his hotel room. Outside, twilight diminished much of the sun’s brightness and his whole being focused on the moment when, from out of this basket, which he had painted anew the previous month, the memory of the radiant face of the choir girl would emerge.
He had discovered her about a year ago when he went to hear the prayer service at the Anglican church in the neighborhood where he lived. Something in her eyes reminded him of those rare and sudden joys that had seized his mother at the sight of the ripened quinces, which he had picked from the trees after her strength gave out. His mother stroked them one by one while mumbling obscure assurances that their golden hue would last forever. And if he placed before her a quince that had lost its gray-white fuzz, and its yellow coloring threatened to overwhelm it, tears would appear in her eyes.
A year had elapsed since he had first met the choir girl. Just two weeks before leaving for Bath — he hadn’t known he was headed then to the city of baths — he telephoned his contact man in Israel and asked for a shipment of quinces. The contact man raised an eyebrow: “Yochanan, it’s not in season…you forgot? It’s summertime.”
“No, no,” replied Zvil with a big smile. “Take a few out of the refrigerator, just a few, just enough to fill a small basket, no more.”
“Oh, that’s better,” replied the speaker on the other side of the line. “Here, I was thinking of a few tons.”
That day, he returned from the office, opened his briefcase, and took out an apple he had found in the refrigerator at work. He rinsed it, cut a pit-like depression in its center, and pushed sugar and cinnamon inside, exactly as his mother had done. When he later gathered the apple seeds, his hands trembled in the same way his mother’s hands once shook when she had gathered quince seeds, boiled them in water, and while they were in a bowl, told him to inhale deeply to help him get over his cough. “But mother,” he protested, “did you hear me cough?”
“No! But if you can prevent it, why not?”
He translated for himself word-for-word that sentence, which he would soon recite to the choir girl, and she would say to him exactly what he had said to his mother so many years ago.
She was painfully young, a sad angel in pastel colors lined by her white smile. He came to hear her, her alone. Each time, he drew close to the choir gallery in hope of singling her voice out of the polyphonic melody. And when he managed to do so, he then endeavored to catch her eye from afar. He did not try to approach her; he only looked at her intently with his wide warm eyes, not thinking of doing anything beyond that. He didn’t even strip her naked with what remained of his imagination. One day, their eyes met. She stared at him with great interest: he was thin, tall, dark, athletic, with sharp features, and he exuded a sense of power. They exchanged glances. When he left the church, he said to himself that now, now that everything was screwed up and he was totally finished, the Lord had sent him a walking fresco who would put an end to this whole fiasco.
At times, he saw her in the street strolling alone or with her girlfriends. He smiled at her. She returned the smile. He considered for a moment introducing himself as Zvil, a sergeant in the armored corps who adamantly refused to go to the officers’ training course because he had fallen in love with Bilha, from the signal corps, who soon enough became his wife. One day, he stopped. The girl did the same. In his imagination, he saw a Botticelli. He grinned to himself. Zvil. What should he say to her? That his name was Zvil? Tell her that he was the son of those eucalyptus trees uprooted from the Ayalon during one of the more serious floods that had frequented the banks of that river? Maybe an automobile would pass by and put an end to their embarrassment by taking them both away to some solitary place.
On second thought, he considered asking her to go to the nearby pub, even if she were to tell him that he was her father’s age. There, he’d tell her about his school days at the Kaduri agricultural school, his years at Kibbutz Hamadia, his studies at the Agronomy Institute in Rehovot, of his work improving varietals, of his wife, Bilha, who had left him to move in with his good friend, Shmuel Gantz, and how then, fed up with everything, he had offered himself to Agrexco, who jumped at the chance to hire him because of his expertise, and then had immediately sent him to their London headquarters.
He’d already lived in England for five years, but time had not done its work; he still couldn’t understand how Bilha had left him for that Gantz. “You’re not a Gantz-ette!” he shouted at her when she informed him two years ago that she had married “your friend,” as she called Gantz. In a tone he hoped would sound jocular, he told her that he’d already asked the commander of the Royal Air Force to send a squadron of Tornado interceptors to bomb their house in the Hadar Yosef neighborhood if she refused to reconsider. She burst out laughing, saying that she wouldn’t object to flying back with them to her beloved London. Her response angered Zvil, who threatened to turn their two children against her, a son and daughter who were then roaming the world.
And now, after five years in London, he had reached the conclusion that he had nothing else to look for in his beloved England, nor did he have anywhere to return to either, so he took a trip to the resort town. On the morning of the second day, he went to a photo shop to develop a roll of film he had taken surreptitiously from behind some bushes, pictures that starred the choir girl, and he weighed the idea of asking the girl at the hotel desk to send the photos to her church without mentioning his name or the hotel’s address.
As he walked to the shop, he recollected those long-ago Thursdays when he would carry a heap of fruit in one of his mother’s large baskets, and how once, shortly before he reached Eliezer’s home, a gang of boys, some of them his neighborhood friends, attacked him and scattered the quinces in all directions, along with several oranges that had ripened before their time. After they left and were out of sight, he gathered the fruit with his sore hands and Eliezer came out and said: “Such idiots, it’s clear they never had the chance to taste of the Tree of Knowledge.”
Before leaving for Bath, he thought of coming before the branch director to introduce the new development plan he had worked on for several months, but he reconsidered when he imagined the surprised reactions of his co-workers the moment when news of what he would do to himself reached them from the Bath police. “How did he have any time to do it? He was completely engrossed in his work. Just a week ago, we went out with him to a jazz club on Oxford Street and he was on cloud nine. It’s impossible! And anyway, one of his files contains a plan to increase the import-export of flowers by a significant percentage, alongside an enhancement plan. And a series of appointments has been set up for him with growers’ representatives who are flying in from the Holy Land.”
The angelic face of the choir girl floated up but refused to take hold in the small basket. Perhaps he should let her be until she’d grown more agreeable, and in that way he might return to the distant outlines of himself, to one of those uprooted eucalyptuses that could have even then swept him far, far away as they floated to the open sea.
And maybe she, the choir girl, was there, too, among the gang of boys who had robbed and ruined the precious fruit. The panic that day had sent him running home in tears, his body shaking. His mother went out to the shed that had leaned on an angle, emerged with a pitchfork in one fist and repressed anger in the other, and chased after the boys, whose trail had vanished by then. She gathered the fruit in her apron, shook the dust from the large basket, and asked him with unequalled sorrow whether he wanted to continue on his own, or whether she should deliver the shipment herself in the morning. “It’s all right,” he answered. “Either way. Today or tomorrow.”
All the way from London to the drawn pistol, in the reserved train car, the taxi cab, and upon the springy bed, he erased worn-out pictures and images, and dismissed popular clichés that he had once quick-shot like a real cowboy at glittery social gatherings and other events that were less so. For one final time, he totally immersed himself in childhood smells, tastes, and sounds, and he internalized movements, stirrings, the eternal parades of the direct and circumspect, the seen and the unseen, the given and the assumed.
On the last day, he went down to the dining room early after an uplifting telephone call: The shipment destined for the choir girl had arrived and was waiting for him in the office, under the desk. The dining room was empty. Only the stirrings and footsteps of the chambermaids came to his ears, sounds that blended with the image of his father standing at the sidewalk’s edge, a brown valise in hand, the neighbors peeking from behind curtains and expecting an outburst from his mother, and, he recalled, at just that moment he had been sticking his finger — which he would soon use to execute what he’d been planning for many months — into a jar of jam, as was the custom in ancient Greece that he had read about in a newspaper article, according to which the bride used to take a bite of a quince to make her breath fragrant for kisses before entering the conjugal chamber. He even recalled the quotation that captioned the picture of a mythical nymph alongside the article’s margins — “so that the first blessing should not be repulsive or unpleasant.” He directed a broad smile at a mustachioed waiter with a face as narrow as a notebook who stood behind the table of salads, baked goods, and teapots. Coffee merited only one pot. Above the waiter, hovering far overhead, Zvil could clearly make out two halos, one white, all amazement, and the other red, mostly of curiosity. Zvil hoped with all his might that the two halos would not fall and crash to the ground with an ear-splitting sound.
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