To Tell Her
Avigail at Night
She is a boring person, and she knows it. An efficient librarian at the classics division of the central library, the Hebrew University, Mount Scopus. She’s smart, though; she knows that too. As the poet said: “I know, I know it all, I hear myself whispering consolations to myself.” Her favorite poet, who also wrote about the longing for “the sweet pain of love.” She can recite many poems; she is full of words.
Avigail is sitting at her desk. It is 1 A.M. The cup of organic herbal tea is full, already cold, but still she keeps it held in both palms. Write, she tells herself harshly. And do it simply. No elegant words to obscure this story.
Beyond the small circle of her table lamp's light, all the houses lie in complete darkness, as do the wooded mountains behind them. And such quietness. She is so tired.
The phone ring makes her jump. At this hour, it can be only one person.
“Gaily!” Her friend's voice is warm and vivid as always.
“Did I wake you? You sound strange.”
“No, I can’t sleep. But how come you're up this late? You should be sleeping.”
“I'll have enough time to sleep in my grave.” Miriam laughs.
“That’s not funny.”
“Of course it is. And you should laugh a bit too, it'll do you good. Even your shrink says so.”
“You know well I don’t have a shrink.”
“Just kidding. But maybe you should; I can give you the phone number of the guy I used to see, he was really good. Anyway, how’s my Sara? Does she already have a boyfriend? You know that any of my boys would love to have her!”
Avigail smiles, thinking of Miriam’s handsome twins. They are a year older than Sara, and the three of them made quite a cute gang when they were little. We hardly go to visit them anymore, Avigail thinks, suddenly longing to be in Miriam’s big wooden kitchen, so full of light, surrounded by all those plants whose names she doesn’t know, in the lucidity of the Galilee air. “I don’t think she has, but how would I know. She hardly speaks to me nowadays. I’m only her mother, after all.”
“What do you expect? We were just like that at fourteen.”
“I wasn’t.” I was obedient, Avigail thinks; following the expectations of my respectable, miser mother. How she hated her mother when she was fourteen, how afraid that she would become like her.
“Of course, you were only interested in books. Well, maybe now you’re a bit interested in John, too.” Avigail can’t help joining Miriam’s laughter. Some things sound like a caress when coming from someone who’s been your friend for almost forty years. “How is he?”
“About to become the head of his department. A lot of administrative fuss, so he complains, in his British way. But he’s actually looking forward to it. I guess we’ll see even less of him at home.” She pauses, too long. “And how are your men doing?”
As always when asked about her family, Miriam drifts into a long sequence of stories about her husband and the twins and especially about all the clever, funny things that her baby did and said. But at some point she notices Avigail’s silence.
“Gaily, what’s wrong?”
Avigail says nothing. She wants to tell Miriam, but can’t seem to form the words.
“It’s Edi, still, isn’t it.” Miriam doesn’t ask, she states.
Avigail doesn’t answer.
“Let it go, Gaily.” Miriam’s voice is soft, and Avigail feels the familiar lump rising in her throat. ”It won’t help her. Or anyone else. It’s all over.”
They are both silent now. A wailing - of a dog? a jackal? - comes from the dark mountains outside Avigail’s window. Finally she can speak again.
“Did you talk to Michel recently? Or Edi's parents?”
“I called Michel, last month or so. He’s fine. Working hard. He is moving in together with his girlfriend. It's about time, and she is really good for him.” Avigail has a sudden difficulty breathing, thinking of Edi's husband living with another woman. Yet Miriam says it simply, as if it is good news. She's right, of course; a long time has passed. Long enough, anyway. She forces herself to keep listening to Miriam's words. ”As for her parents, I called Mary and invited them to visit.” Of course she did; as Avigail too should have done. “But they didn’t come. I guess it’s hard for them, especially with the baby.”
Clever Miriam, Avigail thinks. The baby, she thinks. And everything rises again.
“Gaily. Go to sleep. And take good care of yourself, my dear. Love you. Send my love to John and Sara too, when they wake up.”
“Good night, Miriam. I love you too. And thank you, really.”
“Nonsense. Come to visit us soon, do you hear?”
She hangs up, but Avigail keeps holding the warm earpiece for quite a while. Eventually she puts it down, facing the night and the white paper on the desk.
Miriam under Her Sky
Miriam puts down the phone. For a minute she’s just standing in her living room, very still, hearing the silence. Then she shakes herself and heads to the kitchen, thoughtlessly picking up toys from the floor and putting them in the big straw basket. She picks a handful of mint, lemon grass and verbena from the clay pots on the windowsill, makes the tea and takes it to her rocking chair on the balcony. This is her most precious hour of the day, when the house is asleep and she can sit by herself in the dark under her sky. She looks up – the big bear and the little one, the Cassiopeia, the north’s arrow. So familiar, and so unlike any of the skies she’d gazed up at in so many places. This sky fills her, as always, with a deep sense of serenity and gratitude.
Dear Gaily, she thinks, how powerfully she hangs to this; won’t forgive herself. Miriam herself knows: whatever must happen, shall happen; one will do what one can do, no more. This is how things are, and thinking otherwise is mere vanity. Indeed, Miriam has seen too many people she has loved die and suffer in too many ways, before she could accept the fact that her love cannot save anyone. Even so, when it came to Edi these certainties were nullified, and Miriam was thrown into a wild, desperate rebel against what had happened. But she fought this abyss, determined not to fall into it. It took her long months to regain her balance and accept the simple truth that neither she nor anyone else could have changed anything. Yet how could Gaily understand and accept it too? Nothing in her protected, pampered life could have prepared her for that. No wonder she keeps tormenting herself. Oh, Gaily.
Miriam sighs. She drinks her tea, its warmth pervades her body, balancing the night wind that chills her bare feet. She looks at the sky. Gaily will do what she must do. Just like Edi did.
John in the Morning
When he wakes up, the room is very quiet. It takes him a while to realize that Avigail is not in bed. He glances at the alarm clock; thirteen more minutes before it will go off. He closes his eyes again, but almost immediately reopens them. He'd better get up and see how she is doing. But first things first: morning shower, black buttoned shirt with off-white trousers, a thin black leather belt, crème socks, and the phosphoric-green boxer-shorts that Sara calls “the radioactive pair.” Thinking of Sara, he'd better wake her up. It might prevent – or at least postpone – the daily morning quarrel between her and Avigail. He enters Sara’s room, stepping over the books and clothes strewn about the carpet, approaching her bed. For a moment stands there, watching her in her sleep. Such a beauty she became, his baby. He leans and gently caresses her golden hair.
“Morning, Sar. Time to get up.”
In the kitchen, his espresso already waits for him. He kisses Avigail, noticing the deep blackness under her eyes. But she is dressed and ready to go.
“Couldn't sleep again?”
He can hardly hear her, her voice is that low. He comes nearer. She withdraws a bit, almost unnoticeably, and starts putting the clean dishes in the cupboards.
“Avigail, this is going on too long. See Dr. Shwartz and ask her to give you some sleeping pills that will fit the rest of your medications. We've been through this already.” He sees her stiffening neck and adds softly, “Please.”
His gentle tone softens her objection, as always. She puts the dishes aside and turns to him.
He caresses the back of her hand that leans on the kitchen table. Then he finishes the coffee, scanning the newspaper's headlines.
Avigail's voice interrupts his reading. “Someone should wake Sara. She'll be late.”
“I already did. Gave her five more minutes.”
“I'm sure she’ll be down right on time.” Bitterness infiltrates her voice.
“Let it go. She'll be fine.” Avigail doesn't answer. “Hey, Av!”
He makes a funny face, and she can’t help but smile.
“I'm just sick and tired of being treated like the vicious step mother.” She sighs.
“You're not. And she grows up too quickly as it is, we're going to miss her fourteen.”
“You are going to miss it. She treats you like Prince Charming.”
“Because I am charming. And now I'm going to ride my white horse to the university.”
At the door he gives her the daily farewell kiss and makes her promise to set an appointment with Dr. Shwartz. Today. Stuck in the morning traffic jam at the entrance to the city, he thinks of the last time he’d seen Avigail like this. It was much worse then, of course, but she was younger and healthier too. He remembers her somnambulant wanderings at night, they lived in that small apartment at old Katamon then and he would hear her and get up to persuade her to come back to bed. It was that friend of hers, Edna, who made her like that. He wasn't fond of Edna, that narcissist who seemed to think that Avigail should drop everything to see her through each and every one of her constant crises. Abusing Avigail's generosity. But no matter how hard he tried to make his wife realize it, Avigail wouldn't listen; at times she could be surprisingly stubborn. These were awful months. Only after she finally got pregnant did she agree to stop visiting Edna, accepting that asylums were no place for pregnant women. Luckily, the rest of Avigail’s friends aren't crazy. Come to think of it, her only other friend is Miriam, and at times John wonders whether Miriam's new age beliefs are deserving of the adjective “sane”. But in spite of that he likes Miriam. And her life seems good, at times – as he finds himself overwhelmed by the all too familiar politics of the academic swamp - he even thinks of Miriam's life as enviable. Most important, being with her clearly does Avigail much good. We should visit them again soon, he thinks.
His cell rings, and one of his students asks if they could meet, she’s found some documents that seem to shed new light on her dissertation and needs to consult with him on how to proceed. Of course, he's looking forward to it. He drifts enthusiastically into thoughts about the lives of women in Sparta. He drives on.
But the truth is that it wasn't John’s requests and pleas that made her abandon Edi. Not even what she saw in his honey eyes. It was that dream. She never told it to anyone, didn't dare say it out loud, not even to herself. But now she has to tell it. Avigail forces herself to write:
She is in a beautiful clearing. The trees around it are very tall. Their dark brown trunks are wide and ancient; the treetops, far above her head, are fertile green. The air is fresh, somewhat chilly. But the clearing is full of sunlight. It's very quiet and calm. A little girl is playing there; dancing. She is laughing at Avigail, the sun in her golden hair, shining all over. Her laughter runs like water, light and jumpy. Avigail is just standing there, looking at the little girl, full with serenity. No, there is more than that: profound happiness.
Until Avigail realizes that somebody else is there, too. A figure in a dark cloak is standing in the shadows behind the little girl. A hood is covering the figure’s head, or is it the shade, Avigail can't see the face or even tell if it's a man or a woman. The little girl doesn't see the figure, she's looking at Avigail. It is alarming; Avigail feels that something isn’t right. Then she sees what it is: the figure is holding a long sword, moving it from one hand to the other. For a moment it seems as if the figure forgot all about the sword, she – now Avigail can tell it's a woman – is staring hard at the little girl. Avigail knows that the little girl is in great danger. She's trying to warn her, to run to her. But she can't move. She can't speak. She can't do a thing.
She knows well, of course, that it is merely a dream. Yet the next time she goes to that place she is forcing herself till the gate and then has to turn away, almost violently; hearing Mozart’s requiem in full volume all the way back home. And she never returns there, nor is she able to bring Sara to Edi's home after Edi – so fragile and quiet – is finally released. She cannot explain, not even to herself. Surely not to Edi. They will never talk about it. It will just be there, between them, present and certain as only their mutual devotion used to be.
A Message for Avigail
They return from the annual party of the history department somewhat drunk. At least, Avigail is; she hardly goes out (except for their weekly visits at the cinematheque) and is not used to drinking. Sara is staying with John's mom overnight, and the emptiness of their home is seductive. After they make love, more passionately than usual, John falls asleep and she lays on her back, thinking. After a while she turns and looks at him, very gently. Wishing to caress his face, but afraid to wake him up, she talks to him in her heart; telling him that apparently he was right, that this may be happiness.
It is already quite late in the morning when she gets down to the kitchen, fragrant from the shower, humming to herself, and notices the blinking red eye of the answering machine. She prepares herself the herbal tea, takes in the newspaper, drinks her tea, reads the paper. Only then does she get to hear the message.
Avigail and Miriam at the Threshold
Miriam opens the door at once. As if she was standing there all night, waiting. She doesn’t say a word, and nor does Avigail. They just stand there, at the wide wooden threshold, holding each other, while time itself freezes and then melts, twists, stretches unto the distant days of their childhood.
Their childhood. That infinite universe, the whole of it, and all the things it held. The
secret language they invented, using it for the notes they used to send each other at school, never caught by the teachers who did not suspect that any of them – good students as they all were – can do such things. The research expeditions to the valley behind the neighborhood’s last line of houses - Edi daringly planning and leading them, Gaily in charge of the scientific equipment (flashlight, matches, binoculars, compass, magnifying glass) and accurately documenting all their discoveries in the brown adventure diary, Miriam herself bringing the chocolate sandwiches with raspberry juice and carrying the treasures box. The rare nights in which they were allowed to sleep over together, usually at Edi’s home (Gaily’s mom would have ruined all the fun and Miriam’s parents were reluctant to host other kids); how they would giggle and talk for hours in the dark, with hissed voices, fighting the heaviness of their eyelids until they surrendered, and in the morning there were always wonderful hot chocolate and huge piles of Mary's pancakes. Or that evening when they met under the old oak tree and solemnly swore never to be ordinary people, to lead significant and interesting lives and do great deeds; Gaily, who was fascinated at the time by Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography, raised the idea, and the other two embraced it wholeheartedly. Ah, that was long time ago. Miriam hardly thinks anymore of lost childhoods. She can’t stand sentimentality. Yet now she is going back, seeing and hearing so vividly the girls who used to be Edi and Gaily and herself. She remembers it all.
(But she cannot remember the distant time when Edi kissed Avigail; that sunny day on the lawn, Avigail’s head in Edi’s lap, both laughing madly thinking of their success to be late for the field trip of the 10th grade. Miriam was sick, she wasn't there, and none of them had ever told her about this. Or to anyone else.)
Mary at the Funeral
Mary refuses to take any tranquilizers, insisting on going through it all just as it is. Indeed, she senses everything in a sharp, almost unnatural lucidity. But then what could possibly be natural about burying your child. She says the words again in her mind, “burying your child”, and they sound like the tragic story of somebody else. And those strange words she overheard, coming from an unfamiliar woman in the crowd that surrounds her, about how strong and courageous does Edna's mother seem; Mary doesn't feel herself strong or courageous. She is looking at the body in the shroud. It is so small, so still. Unlike her Edi, who is always so vivid and can never sit quietly. Was, could, she corrects herself firmly.
Everybody starts walking after the cart. They should really repair those concrete paths, Mary thinks, one day a cart will roll over and the… She can’t continue. Not to use this word, not to imagine such a thing. The procession is arriving at its destination, to where that hole is waiting. She forces herself to look. If she had taken better care of Edi this wouldn’t have happened. She shouldn’t have been misled by Edi’s apparent serenity, by her joy. But she thought that the baby, oh, the baby. Would it have been a little girl, a tiny Edi. Or a little Michel. Dear Michel. She sees him standing by the wide open hole, watching. She tries to follow his gaze, but her eyes flee to the sky. Birds are flying high up there; are they heading towards Paris, to those far streets and squares which Edi loved so much? Nonsense.
The sound of the falling dust is unbearably loud. Everything else is still and quiet. Then the Kaddish, so strangely familiar and at yet as if this old prayer is heard for the first time. Nobody will ever say Kaddish for her unborn grandchild. Nobody even knows about her, or him, except for Michel and herself. She becomes aware of her husband’s hand holding onto hers, so hard that she’s lost all sensation of it. Neither of them cries or wishes to say anything.
Afterwards, Avigail approaches to shake their hands. It’s been years since Mary last saw her, but she recognizes her at once. In that strange lucidity Mary notices Avigail's grey dress, the bitter lines around her mouth, her blinking dry eyes, the silver ring with the butterfly on her left pinky; a surprisingly childish ring, not quite fitting her ascetic look. And Mary remembers that Edi used to wear such a ring too. Long ago. I’m so sorry, Avigail whispers, and Mary nods. What can she say. She would have been angry at Avigail, who’d deserted Edi even as she knew how Edi needed and longed to see her; It was unbearable to see how she kept waiting for Avigail to come, even long after it was clear that Avigail was simply not going to. But Mary has no strength left to be angry. Other people come, say tasteless condolences in hissed voices, shake her hand, leave. She sees it all from a great distance. But then eyes appear before her, sea-eyes of green and blue and grey. Miriam’s eyes. It occurs to Mary that almost everybody else has evaded her eyes. Yet Miriam’s eyes look straight at her, and in their deep sadness Mary sees a solid, quiet understanding. Miriam raises her arms and hugs Mary, hugs her powerfully. Only there, within this hug, Mary finally breaks down and cries.
Miriam knows it too. Edi calls her one night, and something in her voice makes Miriam leave the noisy tumult of children and guests and dishes, go up to the bedroom and shut the door. She listens carefully. It is wonderful, she says to Edi. I’m so glad for you both. What is it, Edi, say it. Oh, Edi. Everything will be ok. You will be just wonderful, and so will Michel. Not at all. Just take your medications. No. Of course you will. You’re not the first and not the last to become a mother in such a state. Yes. I know, my dear, I know. Certainly. What a lucky child this little one will be. Edi. Edi. Don’t cry. I love you. I’ll call next week. No, I won’t tell. Love you.
As open as she is about her own pregnancies, abortions, sex life and emotional crises – up to being blunt at times – Miriam is very discrete about other people’s private lives. With Edi, she feels a particular need to protect the secret that’s been entrusted to her. So she doesn’t tell; soon everyone will know it anyway, she thinks. She is wrong. And not only about this.
Avigail on the Way
On the way back from the graveyard, John is driving. The silence in the car is thick, as if they are going through a tunnel of misty clouds. Although it’s terribly sunny outside. At a red light John puts a hand on her thigh, but she pushes him away. He has got nothing to do with this. He hardly knew Edi, and yet he was against her. But then Avigail regrets her harsh response: it isn’t his fault, he’s just trying to help. She turns to him, trying to speak gently.
“I’m sorry. It’s not you. It’s… not easy.”
“I know. It’s ok.”
No you don’t know. Edi is gone, Avigail thinks. It's over. And she can't help feeling also a slight sense of relief.
How wrong she is, she is about to discover. Not right away, not for a while. At first it is surprisingly easy not to think of Edi. But that revolting high school reunion reopens it all. She never could stand such events: kids who became fat men and bored women giggling about their poor common past and showing off with their pitiful present achievements; she has no intention of going. But the invitation is hanging there on the fridge for weeks, and in the due day she finds herself driving to her old high school. When she passes the house of Edi’s parents she accelerates, and her pulse is still rapid when she parks the car. The noise of many simultaneous conversations attacks her once she enters the yard, and she hurries to get herself a drink. Some people come merrily towards her, but she just nods and keeps walking. Her eyes are desperately looking for Miriam, but - as one could expect – Miriam isn’t there. When she realizes that she’s looking for Edi she shakes her head, almost violently; you’re nuts, she tells herself, wash your face and go home. Now. But on the way to the restroom she stops, stunned. People are talking about Edi. No wonder they are, there weren’t many artists in their year, and none had such a dramatic life-story. Noticing Avigail they are not slightly embarrassed, quite the contrary, they wait for her to contribute some anecdotes about Edna, weren’t they – Miriam and herself – Edna’s best friends? Avigail just stares at them, and after a while they turn away; well, she was always strange. Although she did not say anything – or because of that – her face burns as if she has just committed a disgraceful, unforgivable sin.
After that party they will come: nights in which John and Sara and the rest of the world will sleep while she'll wake up, be forced to wander restlessly the deserted house, invaded by the silent darkness of the trees and the lawn and the mountains. From room to room she'll go, so many rooms, trying to escape the inevitable. Eventually she'll collapse, on a chair or a sofa, at times even a carpet or a wooden floor. Then and there Edi will wait for her. Edi, she'll say, then plead, I'm sorry, so very sorry, but what could I have done, you know how it was, you know how I am, please tell me. But Edi will only look at her with an opaque expression, and say nothing.
Avigail can no longer postpone it. Writing Edi's part of the story. She had written all the rest. It should not be that difficult, she tells herself, you always knew everything she had in mind. Well, not always. But then make an effort. For God's sake, you owe her that at least. Just think: the tune of her letters from Paris, so intoxicated and open to all the wonders that this world was offering her, all the more so when she became a student of the famous Theodora Farelly, and then, say it: Farelly’s lover. After a while, her sudden long silence. Her first suicide attempt (she never said why and you never asked, but you know: it has got to do with that Farelly woman). Edi's blue eyes, so alienated from yours, at her parent's house after they brought her home. The frantic phone calls, regardless of the time, the strangeness of her anxious words (your desperate attempts to give them some sense). Her refusal to take the medications that were prescribed by that terribly expensive psychiatrist. The second attempt, more violent this time, which left her mother bruised and silent. The first hospitalization. The release, the miracle of Edi returning, at last, careful and slow, sometimes lost in thoughts, but with her sharp humor and warm hugging arms, painting those sadly beautiful aquarelles (no more of those portraits). Then Michel, sweet, kind Michel, who knew everything and didn't care. Their plans. After that: the seizure, the second hospitalization; Michel's reserved voice on the phone reporting Edi's condition every several days, never suggesting even once that you will visit her there. Michel laughing, saying that Edi's out, that they're moving together to a little house in a village where Edi can have her own studio. And then, what happens then. The notes she had left were addressed to Michel and to her parents; nothing for you. (And you couldn't bring yourself to ask what was written there).
These are the facts, Avigail thinks. You went over them so many times. Will you let her tell you, at last, what really happened; if only you'd listen, she would, as she always used to do. Avigail tries, she really does. But she can't. She just sits there in the dark, aching.
She is looking at the papers on her desk. She reads them all. And rereads. For whatever it's worth, she did her best to tell it. And now it's done.
But she can't let go. Something is not settled yet. What now, what else, leave me alone, she almost shouts. Edi, for her part, adheres to her silence.
Days go by. Weeks. Avigail is in Sara's room, trying to put some order in it. Thinking of her daughter, she smiles, and then sighs. She misses her baby, her smell, the softness of her skin when she was sleeping in Avigail's lap; and the little girl, dressed like a fairy, who held Avigail's hand so joyfully as they walked together in the street. They disappeared so quickly, leaving this grumpy teen who giggles with her friends behind the closed door, addressing her mother only to ask – demand – money, food, driving services. What on earth does Sara have to talk about that much with all these friends of hers, Avigail wonders, irritated, then sadly. Her thoughts drift. Then she realizes: it's the end. She won't accept such an end for the story. She closes her eyes for a long moment, until she sees Miriam, smiling at her reassuringly. She nods and opens her eyes. Tearing a sheet of paper from Sara's math notebook and grabbing a purple heart-carved pen from the carpet and she writes:
Yet in spite of all that had happened she can still hear this beloved voice calling her name, see the wild red head of nine-year-old Edi burning in the summer sun and her unbelievably blue eyes looking up with eager anticipation as she is standing under Avigail’s window. “Gai-ly! Come on!!” Edi is yelling, ignoring the neighbors, ignoring Avigail’s disapproving mom, “stop reading and get out at once, everything is waiting for us!!!”