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Dress

שמלה
by Gail Hareven
Translated from Hebrew by
Adriana X. Jacobs

בתי לבושה בשמלה חומה עם הדפס של מפתחות צהובים. הדוגמה לא נועדה לבנות עשר, אך בתי לא אמרה מילה כשהראיתי לה את הבד שקניתי בשוק, אפילו לא עיקמה את פיה על החום הדודתי ועל ההדפס הילדותי. ילדה טובה, באה למטבח בג’ינס כחול ובחולצה כחולה, וכבר התמקמה בכיסא כשאחזה בי התחושה הרעה ההיא, ואני ליוויתי אותה בחזרה לחדר השינה, ודקות ארוכות בהיתי בתכולת הארון, עד שהנחתי לתת-תודעה .לכווןאת ידי, ולידי לכוון אותי אל החום והצהוב

 

 

My daughter is wearing a brown dress with a pattern of yellow keys. It isn’t a pattern meant for ten-year-old girls, but my daughter didn’t say anything when I showed her the fabric I’d bought at the market—she didn’t even grimace at the spinsterish brown and the childish print. My good girl comes into the kitchen in jeans and a blue shirt, and she’s already settled into her chair when this bad feeling comes over me and I take her back into the bedroom. For several long minutes I look into the closet, until my subconscious moves my hand, and my hand moves me toward the brown and yellow.

Now she sits across from me in composed silence, her braids beautifully woven, dipping a cookie into her tea. Today is a clear day, cool and clear; through the blinds the sun sketches light grilles over the tablecloth and over my daughter’s hand. Sewing the dress, I did the best I could to make up for the fabric: a fitted waist, a flowing skirt, and a pair of small pockets along the chest, one above the other. I copied the pattern from a dress worn by one of her friends. As they’d opened their notebooks to do their homework, my daughter had marveled at her friend’s sky-blue dress. “A fairy’s dress,” she’d said. It’s still chilly out, too cold for thin fabric and sleeves above the elbow. But the generous praise that my daughter lavished on her friend pulled at my heartstrings and I yearned to make her happy.

Now I’m no longer sure about the brown. A clear day like this highlights the essence of things and makes everything painfully beautiful, and it is possible that a sky-blue fabric like the one her friend wore would have blended much better into this radiant background. Though sometimes it’s the faded and blanked-out things that are taken.

 

The day they took N, I was wearing a red and brown floral dress and a short gold necklace. N, as always, wore dusty beige. Everything about N was dusty beige: the dry skin on her neck, her bespectacled eyes, her ragged shoes, her socks, her way of speaking in the teacher’s lounge. Her hair, pulled tightly back, revealed a white streak, and a faint pallor sometimes appeared around her lips. But maybe I’m imagining this whiteness, which in literary texts signifies illness, fear, and death. Maybe I never really noticed this whiteness around her lips and it’s my imagination that gives it this color now. The car was waiting for her next to the gate—not right next to it, a little farther on—a man blocked her path on the sidewalk, another man rested his hand on her back as she bent over to enter the back of the car. There were three of us on the staircase, three teachers on their way outside. There were children there, as well, busy with their own things. A ball rolled past us, bouncing down the stairs, and I turned around to scold the one who had thrown it.

 

My daughter stirs her tea in silence, raising up clouds of cookie crumbs. She’s not much of a morning talker. Even when she was a baby she would wake up without crying, and when I would lean over her crib with a pounding heart, her black eyes would be wide open, calmly taking in what they could see. By the time she could walk, she would make her way to our bed, nudging herself between me and her father, and the feeling of this warm body carefully nestling up against mine used to rouse me from my sleep. When her father had to leave us, she quit coming to our bed. I’d imagined that his disappearance would increase her attachment to me, but she matured beyond her years and her gestures grew more restrained. By then she was six. What do children know? What does she know?

 

When they took N, the children in the courtyard didn’t notice, and those who did saw an older, unpopular teacher, a beige, unstylish teacher, disappearing into a large car. By the next day they had a new teacher. What’s there to remember? Actually, for me this memory is wrapped in shame. Of course, there was fear, but I don’t remember it, or maybe I’m wrong and there wasn’t any fear at all. By the time we noticed the car, the bald man was already blocking N’s way. And it was already clear the car was there and who it would take away. When it left, we stood there, the three of us, our faces frozen, as if we were each having our own mad episode and trying not to reveal what we had seen, not to give in to the insanity. What am I ashamed of? That I uttered the first word and scolded the child who had thrown the ball. Even if there is nothing to be ashamed of, I’m ashamed nonetheless, and my body stiffens with loathing recalling that shrill voice, that turning motion toward the child.

 

What does the girl know? It’s possible that my daughter knows a lot and that her morning silence is not the same as before—it feels now like the silence of a secret. She never argues with me when I send her to change her dress, and her patience doesn’t waver when I stand frozen in place in front of the wardrobe, my hand hovering in the air. With endless patience, she sits on her bed, folds her hands over her knees, and waits.

Beige is the color of camouflage, but beige doesn’t protect. There are days when one is safer in an intense red or bright orange. The boy on the railroad tracks was also beige, a pulp of beige and brown, and a dark red spreading all over. I didn’t know who he was until it was written in the newspaper: the son of…decadent in life and art, an alcoholic. Witnesses say he wandered about and collapsed. It happened on a gray afternoon, the same day they took N.  I never exchanged more than a few words with her. The one time she confronted me was when I unintentionally sat down in her usual spot in the teacher’s lounge, far from the blazing radiator. And I didn’t say a word, just quickly gathered my notebooks without looking her in the eye. But I caught the slight smiles of two young colleagues who observed us from the hot water dispenser. She belonged to a different generation. She had taught at the school when I was a student there. I once heard that she had a daughter, a wild child who got involved with some foreigners and ran off at a young age, but for some reason I can’t picture her as a mother.

 

If only I had known more about color—but how can one know, when nothing is certain anymore? It can’t be that there is no system, that there is no law one can identify. Like in nature. Someone gives the order, someone decrees: “You will take them today and let the rest go,” and so the decree hangs down, branches out, sends its arms out to bring car after car full of today’s “them.”

The style of my daughter’s dress is better suited to a younger girl—three, five years old. My daughter is ten, and according to the new constitution she reached the age of criminal responsibility two years ago. Maybe dressing like a toddler will allow her to slip under the radar.

Then again, maybe the color and style don’t determine this. Perhaps there is another law entirely that I can’t pinpoint. At night, when my daughter is asleep in her bed, I comb the newspapers, striving to find some logic in the melody of names that I contemplate out loud. No rule ever crystallizes from this humming, but for a moment my heart lifts with a feeling of enlightenment: a guttural syllable at the beginning of a name, a weak syllable at the end, a letter in the middle of a word. But right away, always, one after another, the exceptions emerge, and everything fogs up again, and once again my body wanders about in terror like a pagan approaching what his eyes perceive as a caprice of nature. Nature has no whims. Nature has law.

One night I gave up humming the names, and instead I focused on each individual name. Maybe this way I could decipher the code. First I memorized each name as it appeared and then switched the letters around. In the end, I calculated the total numerical value: first name, last name, and the two together. Against all probability, the first fourteen first names came up as multiples of three. My hands started to shake as I moved along the row, from name to name, number to number, up to the fifteenth name, which resulted in an even number, as did the three numbers that followed.

There are stories told of great scientists who make their discoveries in dreams. When my mind can’t take any more, I lay my head on the pillow and go over the names one last time with my eyes closed. Maybe my dream will reveal something. Even though nothing comes to me in my dreams, I sometimes stir, gripped by a panic that I have forgotten something more important, that it has slipped by me unnoticed, something tangible like a real presence in the room. And when my breathing returns to normal, I am once again unaware of what has slipped by me, and I no longer feel its presence.

It is possible that the error is on account of dividing this search into days. Maybe the rules are exposed over time, in some sequence of weeks, months, or years, but even if I had a way of coping with so many names, I wouldn’t have courage to save the list. And memory, wretched memory, retains so very little.

 

It is possible that I am inflicting an injustice on my daughter, and that for no good reason I am wrapping her in fabric for toddlers. One time, on television, I saw three people held at the border, the three of them wore dark-blue sweaters with a rhombus pattern in a color that I could not identify, a sweater just like the one our poet used to wear, and whom we gathered to mourn on the day of his sudden death. Aside from this, there were also the two in dusty beige whom I saw taken off the street, but I didn’t know, and I have no way of knowing, what the others were wearing when they were removed: teacher, teacher, engineer, farmer, farmer, student, teacher, sailor, journalist, driver, chemist, laborer, builder, driver, watchmaker; thirty, twenty-eight, sixty-two, thirty, forty-three, fourteen. Maybe I’m wrong and there is no correlation between someone run over by a train and a woman taken by a car, and maybe it was days or weeks before she was loaded onto a railcar. Two coincidences don’t make a rule, and only this heightened intuition, which is sometimes a sign of insanity, causes me to grasp at them as if they make some kind of rule.

Anyone who, like me, was a young girl during the Great War knows that you can’t disregard intuition. The street you chose to cross; the street you avoided for no apparent reason on a certain day, at a certain hour; the sudden feeling that guided you at a certain moment to keep going and leave, and at another hour to wait. Dozens of times I followed my intuition, and if I survived it was thanks to that ancient voice that rises from the deepest recesses of the mind.

In those days we knew who the enemy was. The people, like a sick body, rose against themselves and attacked their own cells. Teacher, teacher, engineer, farmer, farmer, a thirty-year-old, a twenty-eight-year-old, a sixty-year-old. They say that one must amputate a limb before the gangrene spreads. Diseased cells disguise themselves as healthy ones, and the ones closest to the sick cells must be excised before they endanger the entire body.

 

My daughter is already ten years old, and her body has yet to reach that awkward stage that hits girls right before puberty. Warm and perfect, poised, she sits in her blue underwear and watches her mother’s hands dig around the closet like a pair of skittish rodents. Sometimes I think that her passivity speaks to her maturity, and other times I think the very opposite: my daughter seems very childish to me. Either way, her passivity suits me, and yet there are moments when I glance back at her and yearn for an outburst of anger that would detain the mad movements of my hands. For it is madness—madness that provokes me to torture her in this way, every time she is ready to leave the house. If she were to burst out, to cry, to refuse to change her clothing for the third time, if she were insolent and yelled “you’re crazy” to my face—maybe then I would recognize this madness, I would instantly recognize it and gather my daughter into my arms, and let her choose whatever she wanted to wear, and I’d even sew her a sky-blue dress, even though I’m not allowed to wear sky blue to school. The point is that if my daughter is taken, she’ll be taken without me.

 

My first class begins at ten. In the meantime, I sit in my thick robe, putting on my work clothes only after my daughter has left. Choosing my own clothing doesn’t require much thought. It’s obvious that I can’t wear a brown dress with a print of yellow keys, but in my closet there is a similar brown dress with a print of yellow circles, and from a distance the two dresses look alike, as if they had been cut from the same cloth. My daughter’s dress is long, about twenty centimeters below the knees, and it will definitely fit her in the summer and fall, maybe even next spring. Because my daughter is growing fast and needs new clothes every season, I spend hours looking for clothes that look like mine, and when I can’t find any, I sew something for the two of us.

Intuition sways me in two directions, and I can’t decide which is the safest. Sometimes it swings this way, sometimes that way. In our closets hang pieces of clothing made from basic patterns, which you see often on the street, but there are also items that I have sewn from less readily available fabrics, fine, multicolored fabrics, the kind that you might find only at the theater. It was the second kind that earned me the reputation of a master seamstress. Often my colleagues would inquire where they could get a certain pattern, dropping hints that maybe I could make them something, but I wouldn’t take the bait, and I also wouldn’t reveal where I had purchased the fabric.

 

My daughter is done fishing cookie bits out of her tea and now, like the well-mannered girl that she is, she gets up to wash the cup, soaps it scrupulously inside and out, rinses, dries it off, and checks it against the light.

I sip my coffee and hide, try to hide, the sharp pain that seizes my stomach. Such a little girl—and such gravity in all her movements.

When I was my daughter’s age, actually a little bit older, two years before the outbreak of war, my thoughts used to revolve around what I secretly called “the perfect movement.” I wasn’t graceful like her, and my self-conscious pride kept me from participating in ballet classes. I knew that I was not, and never would be, like those charming nymphs of lithe movement and body whose locks come undone, cascade, and prettily frame their cute faces. And despite my mother’s anger, I refused to be one of those stubborn, clumsy dancers who fall over themselves.

Even though I didn’t study ballet, I thought a lot about movement. Every movement, even the most quotidian movements—like combing one’s hair or washing one’s hands—could be executed in an ugly or less ugly way, in a regular way, or in a more beautiful way, and of course in a more perfect way. The perfect movement is the right movement. The hand rising in the air passes an endless line of imaginary points, the right points—not straying one millimeter—and as it approaches its goal, it traces this line with the right rhythm, without haste but also without slowing down, for there is a rhythm, everything requires the right rhythm. One simple and perfect movement, I thought, can change reality, like opening a door into another world, like turning on a light. The right movement isn’t just a beautiful movement, it is beauty itself, and when it is revealed, it is impossible not to notice. In my mind I saw myself at a train station, lifting my hands to tighten the ribbon in my hair. At first, only a few people notice the movement, it attracts their gaze and illuminates their face. But this focused observation leads more and more heads to turn in my direction, and the station begins to quiet down, and as soon as I lower my hand, the last voices fade. I don’t imagine any applause, shouts of praise, or people approaching me. The silence continues for some time after the perfect movement comes to an end. With a pensive turn, people continue on their way, reflecting on that revelation of perfect beauty. Everyone saw it, and even if they didn’t know how to describe it, they felt as though their life had changed.

The perfect movement requires great practice and a complete lack of self-consciousness. It comes by chance, its awareness crystallizes only in the act, for too premature an awareness may distort it. With my hand driven by some internal mechanism that to this day I don’t understand, I would enjoy long periods of time focused intently on one quotidian movement. Sharpening a pencil: the back is straight, but not too straight, the elbows lean on the table, the fingers grasp the metal sharpener, the palm of the second hand moves in delicate semicircles in front of the pensive face. The lips touch one another. One must not wrinkle the brow.

Over and over again, I would put on a coat, just to practice taking it off, like throwing a robe over one’s shoulders. For some reason it seemed to me that in the removal of the coat, more than in putting it on, there was the potential for beauty. Sometimes the right movement was so close, but a sudden deviation—of millimeters, of excess awareness—would cause it to be lost and I would be forced to start all over again.

I don’t remember how much time passed in that search, months it seems, until gradually the impulse to search vanished like a fleeting name. Sometimes, when I was already a university student, a flicker of that old feeling returned, when I focused the microscope in order to observe the structure of a cell, carefully guiding my fingers toward the perfect focus, and suddenly blurring the picture with a careless movement. Yet this was little more than a pale shadow of what dominated my existence when I was a child.

 

Now my daughter, with a dreamy expression, threads her hands slowly through the straps of her school bag. Right before she leaves the house the focus is perfect, and my girl with her braids, the edge of her slip peeking out, my girl with her brown dress, is the epitome of beauty, but beauty does not break open the world.

“Can I go?”

When I kiss her on the top of the head, I hold my hands, so that they won’t grab her fiercely and bring her back to me.

I will stand next to the window and wait a bit. Through the sunlight, I see my little daughter appear, crossing to the sidewalk on the other side, turning right, passersby hiding her from my eyes. She disappears at the corner of the street, emerges again for a moment, and then moves farther away under the canopy of trees that have just begun to turn green.

And then, a few minutes later, terror will strike—maybe the brown dress is a mistake, a mistake that can never be repaired, and by making this one wrong choice, I have sealed the fate of my daughter.

 

 


Gail Hareven, “Simla” from Ha-derekh le-gan eden. Jerusalem: Keter, 1999.

 

Image by Thomas Colligan.

Author
Gail Hareven is the author of seventeen books of short stories, novels, nonfiction, plays, and stories for children. She has published two novels in English, Lies, First Person (Open Letter, 2014), and The Confessions of Noa Weber (Melville House, 2009), which was awarded the Sapir Prize and the Best Translated Book Award. She is a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and a laureate of the Prime Minister's Prize for Hebrew Literary Works (2013).
Translator
Adriana X. Jacobs is associate professor of modern Hebrew literature at the University of Oxford. Her translations of Hebrew poetry have appeared in Gulf CoastAnomalyWorld Literature TodayNorth American ReviewThe Ilanot Review, among others. She is the author of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (2018, University of Michigan Press). Her translation of Vaan Nguyen's The Truffle Eye is forthcoming from Zephyr Press.