Corner People, first Chapter.
Esther néni came to us at night, or more precisely at one o’clock in the morning of Tuesday, 30 April 1969.
People in Haifa went to bed early. One o’clock in the morning was the time of the jackals. And mine. No one except me knew what this time looked like. Father came home from ‘work’ at seven in the evening. By ten he was in bed. He got up for work at five. His bus left from the bank on the corner of Trumpeldor Street at five forty-five.
Mother slept for most her life. The Sleeping Beauty who never really woke up except for fits of temper or joy, depending on the curve of her psyche at the time.
Grandma got up together with Father, made him his café au lait-like coffee, took her blue shopping bag, and went to the Talpiot Market to buy the freshest produce available.
Grandpa was never awake. His eyes looked backwards to the time that once was, even though they seemed to be staring forwards, at us.
My brother fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, exhausted from hurling his ball of quiet anger at the wall, and I woke up every night from the howling of the jackals in the wadi. With the covers up to my neck I listened to the chorus of their lament. Sometimes they were right beneath the window. I thought how dangerous it would be to go outside now, into the dark, to the howling of the hungry jackals. How scary. I heard my mother shouting in her sleep, I’m dying-I’m dying. It’s scary indoors as well. The bed turned into a trap. The bats of my fears darted above her and the night snakes slithered inside her. With hurried hands I threw the covers aside, clasped Bobochi to my chest and fled to the hallway. At the last moment I was saved from the terrors of my bed. Once I’d woken Grandma but she looked at me with alien eyes, haunted by a nightmare of her own and muttered ‘Menj vissza aludni’, go back to sleep. Since then I’ve left my sleeping family to their nightmares. I’d steal past my mother’s bed in one corner of the bedroom and my father’s in the other, move on to my grandmother’s bed who slept on the closed-in balcony, and my grandfather who lay frightened, scrunched up in the foldaway bed that was a sort of narrow couch by day, his head thrown back as if he were a soldier who’d been shot. I’d flit past my brother who’d murmur speeches in his sleep, and drop into my corner in the hallway. I opened my eyes wide to the square of the dark window. In those moments of quiet, when the jackals had despaired of their howling, I listened to the ticking clock. Each split second echoed into the night. The plip-plop of the dripping bathroom tap. Every evening my grandmother reproached my father for not fixing it. One plop followed by another exploded on the porcelain washbasin like water bombs in the nocturnal silence.
Snores bubbled from Grandpa and Grandma’s open mouths, Father groaned in his sleep and once again Mother shouted that she was dying. I wanted so much to sleep like Varka the nursemaid in the Chekhov story, just to sleep, but the bed was noisy, lying in it was impossible, and the night was dangerous. I longed to escape but at the same time to see the danger, to look it in the eye.
The hands of the old clock that still serves me with the loyalty of a pre-digital artifact shone greenly phosphorescent. I scrunched up in the hallway alcove. Bobochi rested in my arms. A doll that was always awake with painted, wide-open eyes.
A knock on the door.
Bobochi and I froze. I didn’t even have the strength to get up and flee, to run to the bed and pull the covers over my head. What I knew would come was here. The drunk we’d once seen in the Ziv neighborhood when Father and I went to buy sunflower seeds at old Tsarfati’s. The first drunk I’d ever seen, staggering and yelling, brandishing an empty bottle. People ignored him, walked round him, looked away. I couldn’t stop staring at him, mesmerized. Here’s someone dangerous, someone who dared to display his flaws to the whole world, someone who isn’t afraid of being frightening. Crazy. That night I gave in and called Father. He took my hand and nestled me against him in the narrow iron bed under the window where he slept. I didn’t fall asleep. There, in that narrow iron bed there was something that wouldn’t let me close my eyes, something even more dangerous than the drunk from Ziv.
Two knocks on the door.
It’s for real, I wasn’t dreaming. Maybe the Nazis have come. I knew that was a long time ago and the good guys had killed them and rescued my father and mother and grandmother, but perhaps there were one or two left and they’d come looking for Father and Mother and Grandma and Grandpa and my brother and me. My brain calculated quickly. There were two possibilities of saving myself: the first, the knowledge that I don’t have a Jewish nose. Completely Aryan. Thin blonde hair and an upturned nose. I didn’t look like I belonged to my raven-haired mother. I didn’t resemble her at all. The other possibility I espoused after a brief hesitation, was to disappear. To reduce my presence to the size of a crumb. I’m not here, I’m not here. I can’t be seen because I don’t exist. That was my strength. Being invisible.
The echo of the hesitant knocking faded the more I was snuffed out like Tinker Bell without love. A dead star waning in the darkness.
Thoughts roiled in the inner hiding place within me. The first to surface were only words of fear. Gloomy, pungent words. Words had always had color, taste, and smell. They were real because I felt them with my senses. Grandma once said that anything that’s sour, sweet, salty, or bitter, and has a color and texture – exists.
The next knock took some time, maybe it won’t come, but still, to be on the safe side I disappeared. Erzsêbet tanti once talked about the danger of over-complacency. You should always take the worst possibility into account, she said, it’s soothing.
Danger has hues too, and ever so slowly nicer words with the texture of butter came, words that gave off the fragrance of eau de cologne. To calm myself I told myself stories, I moved myself into another life while still enfolded in the hiding place within me.
The best thing was recalling the Purim festival. The Purim stories were the nicest.
And I was already there in the Queen Esther costume that only a month earlier had been put back in its place on the top shelf of the wall closet in Mother and Father’s bedroom. The bad guys standing in the darkness behind the door were absorbed into the stories of the costume and the aunts, the tantis.
Every year the costume would be taken out before the festival. I had to try it on and Grandma would lengthen the hem or add a lace insert to the length if the extra hem had all been used, depending on how much I’d grown. Every year we’d buy new accessories from the Hungarian in the shopping center who sold stationery and cheap toys: a gold cardboard crown that looked almost real until I saw the spectacular ones worn by the other girls in the kindergarten, and later at school, and a scepter with a shiny marble stuck onto the end. Best of all were the pumps I was allowed to wear instead of the high orthopedic shoes with the insoles. I’d been given the dress by Juliska tantiwho was the mother of Jôska bâcsi, the husband of Erzsêbet tanti, Grandma’s sister. She lived with them in the Halisa neighborhood. Juliska tanti was an elderly fairy with a halo of white hair and a face furrowed by thousands of dry riverbeds. She wore tulle and lace dresses as yellow as sunflowers and wrapped her shoulders in a thin pink shawl. I’d never met an old woman like her, dressed like a lady from Gone with the Wind, half of which I’d seen at the Ziv Cinema with Olga tantiand Grandma and Mother who’d cried till the lights came up and the word “Intermission” appeared on the screen. Then she insisted on going home. Her weeping sawed through the cinema. People sitting next to us stole inquiring glances and angrily whispered ‘Shhh’. Olga tantiand Grandma’s efforts at persuasion were no help, Let’s stay a while longer, we’ll see the end, it’s only another hour and a half, think of the child… We left the cinema when the lights went down again and the movie resumed. I turned my head round as far as I could to watch Scarlett O’Hara for another moment or two as she ran among the crowds of wounded at the train station, until she disappeared behind the cinema’s doors.
For Purim there was only one costume: Queen Esther.
When I was about four, the tantis, Grandma’s sisters, took my hands, one on each side. Grandma stayed behind to look after Mother who couldn’t be left alone after what she’d done. The three of us climbed up the metal steps of the Number 19 bus. Olga tantilifted one veined leg and another varicose one and pulled me after her. Erzsêbet tanti hoisted her heavy hips up the steps, and panting asked the driver: Three to Hadar please.
We got off at Halisa. First Erzsêbet and her behind. Then me, with the little skips of a lamb released from its pen, and then Olga tanti, one foot at a time. The driver was already revving his engine and Olga tanti was alarmed and called out, Just a minute, drover, just a minute! I’m still get off! Like all Hungarians her Hebrew wasn’t all that good.
First we went into the Hungarian pastry shop on the main road to the Check Post. The aunties bought the girl who is “really like a stick and needs some flesh on her” a Dobos torte, thin layers of pastry with soft chocolate cream in between, and topped with amber caramel. Grandma didn’t let us eat too many cream cakes because it’s bad for the character, excessive indulgence, but Erzsêbet tanti and Olga tanti leaned over me, the pointy tips of their breasts almost stabbing my cheeks, and whispered to me that it’s our little secret, you don’t have to tell Grandma everything. What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. I nodded like someone who’d been let in on an existential secret, and licked the chocolate cream between the layers of pastry. We climbed up to the fourth floor of an old building that overlooked the main road and had inhaled the exhaust fumes from the buses and cars below into its concrete lungs. There, in Erzsêbet tanti and Jôska bâcsi’s apartment, whose walls were covered with tapestries of princes and carriages and horses, lay Juliska tanti in her own room, surrounded by innumerable muslin and lace shmattes. She was a white-haired old girl who shook her head incessantly. She didn’t have pert, pointy breasts but two deflated beach balls covered with a white muslin dress. She held out a trembling hand to me and asked in toothless Hungarian if I was a good girl. I stared at this old woman who could have been either a fairy or a witch, and at the piles of tulle and muslin that were scattered everywhere, on the floor, on the chairs, even on the low bed in which she lay. A closed smell of dust and an unwashed body suffocated me and prevented me from replying. She’s not breathing good again, sighed Erzsêbet tanti, and wiped away the chocolate smudges from my cheeks with a thumb she wet with spit, and replied in my place, Of course she’s a good girl. A very good girl! Choking on a grateful cough I stared at Erzsêbet tanti who hadn’t told Juliska what kind of a girl I really was. Juliska tanti murmured Take whatever you want from all my clothes. I’ve kept everything. Have you any idea how beautiful I was once? I didn’t have any idea, but I did my best to behave properly and replied in fluent, polite Hungarian, You’re still beautiful, Tanti. Juliska tanti gave a toothless laugh. She really is a most excellent girl, she said, chewing the words and suddenly falling asleep, her chin dropping onto her chest. Olga tanti who lived on her own in the next building was the most pedantic of the sisters and couldn’t stand untidiness. With nimble fingers she began collecting and folding the scattered clothes. She laid moth-eaten ball gowns and yellowing lace blouses in a pile on the table in the corner. I looked at those butterfly wings fluttering as she folded the clothes, but I didn’t dare get up and poke through the piles. Erzsêbet tanti called Olga tantiinto the kitchen for a cup of chicory and milk and a piece of Makos, a marvelous poppy-seed cake she baked herself because Jôska didn’t like bought cakes. There’s nothing like home-baked Makos. They went out. I was left standing in the corner, trying with all my might to behave properly. She’s definitely a fairy or at least a queen from some story that fled without her. Otherwise how could you explain all these queens’ and fairies’ dresses?
The cave of Juliska tanti’s empty mouth was gaping and the ruins of her chest flopped onto her stomach, rising and falling with her broken breathing. I hesitated for a moment. Maybe it’s forbidden, maybe she’ll know the truth about me, and then the witch in her will cast a spell over me and turn me into a wrinkled, toothless creature. She’ll get into my skin instead of me, but my fingers were itchy. I fell onto the dusty piles, and my hands, tiny, sharp bulldozer blades, began burrowing and digging tunnels in them. Here’s a dress with layers of half-eaten tulle, and there’s a satin jacket with pearl buttons and a pink silk dress full of holes. I skipped round the room draped in those dresses that smelled of dust mixed with old perfume from another, distant time when Juliska really was young and beautiful, perhaps the time of Gone with the Wind. Then the sisters finished drinking their chicory and telling secrets that mustn’t be told in front of the child, and eating Makos, but just a bit, to watch the figure. They picked me up and lifted me in the air, crushed my body to their chests, and Olga tantiscolded me mildly for making a mess, again these shmattes are all over the place, and again she began folding the ancient dresses. From the pile Erzsêbet tanti pulled a particularly small dress made of layers of lace, held it out to me and said in Hebrew, There you are, your Purim costume. Nobody wears it in any case, so take it.
Back home I showed the dress to Grandma who nodded and said, You’re too short and thin, even this tiny dress will need to be taken in. She took the dress and stuck in pins and folded and shortened. Mother was standing in the middle of the room looking like she always did, as if she were lost, but I was sure that she was smiling just a bit.
Purim was the tops. The carnival moment I waited for all year.
The knocking on the door had stopped. The jackals had moved away too. Their faint howls came up from the mountain. I breathed deeply. Maybe I could go back to existing? And then, amid that newfound relief, another knock, more insistent than the previous ones.