f i c t i o n  

m i r i a m  b e n - y a a c o v

Chaia smiled when Dov entered their apartment and tossed a newspaper to her. He knew she longed for news of events in Europe.

She leaned against the Moroccan scatter cushions. Her feet, tanned under her leather-thonged sandals, lay crossed on the Bedouin rug. The stray cat she befriended curled against her legs.

Outside date tree fronds brushed against each other, like venetian blinds disturbed by wind, more rustle than metallic sound.

Chaia and Dov embraced, made love even before Dov washed or ate. After, as they lounged on the coil mattress, Chaia turned troubled eyes on Dov.

“Do you love me?” she asked peeling oranges and feeding him.

“’Course I do,” smiling, he gathered her to him.

Chaia and Dov were married three years. Theirs was a happy marriage. They had met in the condoctoria where Chaia worked as a waitress. Midmorning, on his way to work, Dov stopped there for breakfast. It was quiet at that hour, the rush over. Chaia would pour herself a cup of coffee and sit with him while he ate his pastry.

“Wait!” she said, untangling herself from Dov’s limbs and picking up the letter from her sister, Sarah. She glanced at the picture of Sarah that was stuck in the corner of the mirror. Sarah was three years younger than Chaia, smaller and more delicately boned, but with the same lean, long-limbed look.

“I love my sister very much. I want her to come to Palestine.”

“I know,” Dov replied.

The wind-chime’s tone melded with children’s laughter. Two orange branches stuck in a milk bottle sat on the windowsill. Orange blossom perfume, sweet, mingled with the salt air.

“Time’s running out,” Chaia said.

While serving pastries at the condoctoria, Chaia had mulled over ways to get Sarah out of Poland. Slowly a plan took shape. She was embarrassed, did not believe her plan could work, yet she had to try.

Now was the time to share her plan with Dov. She took a deep breath. “If Sarah marries a Palestinian Jew, she can come,” she said.


“Divorce me. Travel to Poland. My parents will send the money. They’ve never met you. They won’t know you are the fictitious groom. We’ll say you are your cousin, same name, everything. Marry Sarah. Bring her to Palestine. Divorce her. Marry me again.”

“What if I fall for her?”

“How could you even think of that?” The brown specks in Chaia’s eyes flashed burnt sienna, the color of her long hair, now unbraided. The color of the clusters of freckles on her nose, cheekbones, and scattered around her shoulder blades.

“Don’t be so serious,” Dov said as he picked up a fallen leaf. He brushed it across Chaia’s forehead, down her nose, over her mouth and chin, stopping at her breasts. “Who’d kiss your freckles then?” he asked.

Turkish coffee bubbled in the copper finjan. Small coffee cups waited on the bronze circular tray. Two rolls, butter, and halvah sat on a plate.

Chaia did not know what made Dov agree. Was it adventure-lust? Curiosity about her sister? or the trip and meeting her parents?

The trip held many dangers, but Chaia overlooked them. Her main concern was to salvage whomever she could of her family from the crazy maelstrom that was Europe in the 1930s.

The divorce proceedings went smoothly. Dov was subdued. Chaia, busy buying gifts for her parents, was unaware of his thoughts and did not notice the change in his behavior.

She bought a daily prayer book bound in silver plate and ornamented with agates and silver scrolls for her father, and a necklace of tiny, intricate, silver medallions, in the Yemenite style, for her mother. For Sarah she bought a blue caftan with embroidery around the neckline and cuffs.

Dov traveled by boat to Istanbul, Turkey, and then walked or rode trains through Bulgaria, Romania, and Czechoslovakia into Poland.

Chaia knew when the mailman came because the old woman that lived in the apartment above hers always watched for him. When she saw him approaching she shuffled to the mailboxes. Chaia followed the sound of her cane tapping on the steps.

Like Chaia, the old woman lived for the letters the mailman drew from his mailbag. The old woman’s children lived in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“Why do you live so far from your children?” Chaia asked her.

“It’s tradition in my family. My parents, my grandparents before them, all, when they got old, they came to the Holy Land to die and be buried here. This apartment’s belonged to my family for eight generations. When I die, it will go to my firstborn child.”

“Aren’t you lonely?” Chaia asked.

“My husband, may his soul rest in peace, died six months ago. One day, God willing, I will not wake up. I’ll join him. I wish for it to come soon,” she said.

She peered through her glasses at Chaia. “You’re husband, I don’t see him a long time. Such a handsome young fellow, such nice, even teeth.”

Chaia pottered with the basil she grew in ceramic containers.

The old woman leaned closer. “I don’t hear so well,” she said.

“I sent him to bring my sister,” Chaia said. “We divorced so he could marry her and bring her as his wife. That way the British will allow her to enter Palestine.”

The old woman’s face darkened. “Hitler’s making everybody crazy!” she spat, then turned and peck, pecked her way to her apartment.

Chaia’s parents, in their letters, wrote how wonderful Dov’s cousin was, how safe they felt letting their youngest, their last daughter, travel with him to Palestine. They added that they would not mind if this turned into a real marriage.

Dov rarely wrote to her. Chaia did not think this unusual. She knew her parents would think it strange that her husband’s cousin wrote her letters. The few letters he wrote were strained, distant.

“It’s good to meet your parents,” Dov wrote. “The shtetl is different from Palestine. I like walking with your father. I am introduced as the new son-in-law, cousin to Chaia’s husband.

“People laugh, Chaiale, they make jokes about two cousins with the same name marrying two sisters.” Chaia turned the page. “The wedding will be in ten days. Immediately after, Sarah and I leave for Israel.”

Chaia looked at the date stamped on the envelope. May 11, 1935. That meant Dov and Sarah would be married on the 21st, the day she and Dov had exchanged rings.

“Dov, have you forgotten? Couldn’t you delay the wedding a day or two?” Chaia cried as she crumpled onto their bed.

“Not once does he write that he misses me,” she whispered.

She forced herself to make plans. “The journey back to Palestine lasts two months. They’ll arrive during July.” She missed Dov. Not only was he her lover, he was her confidante and friend. She had acquaintances yes, people she knew from Poland or met through her work. But she felt reserved with them. With Dov she shared every thought, every detail of her life.

She searched the marketplace for sturdy fabric. She wanted to use this fabric to separate their bed from Sarah’s sleeping area. She made pastries and did ironing for the potter who lived next door. The pots he gave her in payment she filled with seeds; basil, parsley, mint, tomato, and two small trees, one a lemon tree, the other a bayleaf tree.

She hoped that in a year or two she and Dov would be able to move into a house. “If we live on a communal farm, a moshav, I can stay home, look after chickens, sell eggs, and grow vegetables. We can start a family,” Chaia thought. “As soon as Dov returns, we’ll try for children.”

“Sarah won’t mind helping with the baby. Ah! Sarah! What will Sarah do?”

Chaia smiled. “She can take my job as waitress. Or perhaps she can join a kibbutz. Whatever makes her happy. Please God, she should find such a nice, such a good man as I have.”

Sometimes Chaia sat on the stone steps at the entrance to the apartments while waiting for the mailman. One day, as she sat on the steps crocheting, the old woman who lived upstairs hobbled up.

“What are you doing?” the old woman asked.

“I am crocheting a baby jacket,” Chaia said.

The old woman grabbed the ball of wool from Chaia. “It is forbidden to prepare anything before the baby is born, never mind conceived. You will call Ha-ayin ha-ra, the evil eye.”

The time for Dov’s return was nearing. Chaia was excited. Her regulars at the condoctoria asked, “A new lover perhaps? A baby on the way?”

Chaia did not know when Dov and Sarah were coming or on which boat they were traveling. She rushed home from work, hoping they had come. When she found the apartment empty, she would be sad, say, “What matters another day, another week in the long run.”

She walked along the seashore, walked till the sun set, then turned towards home. She returned home exhausted and slept till first light.

The first week of July passed. Then, a Thursday, she remembered it was Thursday, because on Thursdays the cheesecakes and apple strudel were baked for the Sabbath trade. She bought a burnt cheesecake and a few apples home for supper.

She remembered the sun was bright, not hot, the sea, azure, calm. The street vendors’ wagons were piled high with bananas. Sheaves of drying dates lay alongside, then prickly pears, and pyramids of red pomegranates. She fished in her pocket for a coin, paid the fruit vendor for a pomegranate and bit it open, sucked the pips into her mouth, sucked the blood-juice dry as she walked to the old Arab apartment house where she lived.

She wiped her hands on her apron then opened the door. “Strange that it opened without being unlocked,” she thought. “I must be more careful next time.”

As soon as she opened the door she knew Dov and Sarah were there. It was not only the smell of the finjan on the burner; it was the smell of bodies in the sterile apartment. The cat was sitting on the window ledge, its tail flicking.

She should have realized something was wrong. They were sitting too close together, and on the bed, her bed. She was happy to see them and did not notice that Dov moved slowly to embrace her, that Sarah turned her face when they hugged.

Chaia held Dov’s hand as she walked around Sarah. “My little sister has blossomed. What a beautiful woman you’ve become, even more beautiful that I anticipated.”

Again she hugged Sarah. “Won’t you cause a stir among the young men,” she said.

Sarah blushed.

“What? Shy? You?”


Chaia shuddered when she woke from her reverie.

That very afternoon, as she walked out the makolet with her basket of groceries, something caught her eye. She looked and saw Dov and Sarah crossing the street.

Dov’s body had filled out. Gray flecked his temples. Sarah walked with a stooped rounded back.

Then, just as quickly they were gone.

“They’re dead! Dead to you! You mourned for them twenty years ago,” Chaia sobbed. “All you saw were ghosts, ghosts of two people you once loved.”

Her voice grew harsh, angry. “How dare they come to my neighborhood,” she muttered to herself as she slammed the groceries on the kitchen table. She could barely breathe. Her temples and the back of her head pounded like the pumping piston of the drills used to search for water in the Negev. She cursed this chance meeting that brought back painful memories. She could not stand to be inside. She grabbed a shawl, hid her head and shoulders beneath it and rushed out, forgetting to close the door, forgetting to switch off the burner on which the water boiled for her tea .

She did not hear the terse radio announcement. “America, France, and England order the Israeli Army to stop pursuing the fleeing remnants of the Egyptian Army.” It was 1957, the last days of the Sinai War, nine years after the Balfour Declaration, after the establishment of a Jewish State in British Mandated Palestine.

She walked up and down the streets of Bnei-Brak, bumping into people, not apologizing, just trying to stop the searing in her chest.

The people of Bnei-Brak knew she stayed alone and that she worked at the Osem factory. “She must be from the camps,” the people said. “Israel’s filled with half-crazies. Who wouldn’t be crazy if you saw your family cremated, your baby thrown against a wall.”

“One can see she’d been a beautiful woman. Perhaps they used her to pleasure the German soldiers,” another said. “She looks old, but that doesn’t mean much. When one has experienced such strange times as those in the camps anything is possible.”

“Imagine,” a matron said in Yiddish, “They sold their bodies for a cigarette, traded lives for a potato. See, children, what comes when one interferes with the wishes of God. Hebrew is a holy tongue, to be used in prayer, not everyday talk.” She looked at her two young boys. Both had blonde earlocks and a black skullcap atop their short hair.

The matron straightened her wig, “This madness of coming to Palestine, making it the State of Israel, that’s not Hashem’s way. He in his own time, blessed be He, will do what is right. See this madwoman walking the street as if possessed by demons. That’s what happens to people who interfere with Hashem’s plan.”

Chaia’s mind was burning.

Long after the lights had gone out in the windows and the shutters were drawn, Chaia turned towards her apartment.

Her footsteps echoed above the mewing of the alley cats.

The moonlight was strong enough to show her the way up the stairs to the second floor.

She saw the kettle melted into the burner. Enough registered for her to turn the gas main off. She curled up on her bed and fell into sleep.

Even in her sleep the ghosts would not leave. “Rabenu sel Olam, God of the Universe,” she moaned, “why did they come? I never wanted to see them again.” She shook. “All I wanted was to save my sister.”

“It cost me. It cost me my husband, my dreams, my sanity.”

Her body ached from hours of walking. Her chest felt as if it would crack every time she took a breath. But her mind, the one thing she wanted numb, was clear.

The first days after Dov returned with Sarah replayed in Chaia’s mind no matter how hard she tried to crush the memory.

She remembered their first night back. She remembered Dov’s lovemaking. She remembered urging him to be quieter, saying, “Sarah will hear.”

Her family was worldly, not like the ultra-orthodox for which lovemaking was allowed only with the mission of begetting another soul. Still, the modesty of tradition clung to her.

The next morning Dov said to Chaia, “I’ll show Sarah Jaffa and Tel Aviv. In a week or so, I’ll go back to work.”

Sarah did not stir from her bed. Happy to have both Dov and Sarah safe in Palestine, Chaia left for work.

She rushed home at the end of the day and was disappointed to find the apartment empty.

She prepared supper. “Sarah will get used to Mediterranean food,” she thought as she cut tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers and an onion into small cubes, then tossed all in olive oil.

She was putting green olives and cottage cheese on the table when she heard Dov and Sarah laughing at the door. She opened the door and found them kissing. She sprang back, bewildered. Two seagulls circled in the blue air. Far off, a sailboat could be seen.

Dov came to her, rubbed her shoulders, her arms. “Jealous, are we?” he asked. Sounds from the old Jaffa harbor mingled in the cool of early evening.

Chaia was silent during supper. She answered tersely when asked a question.

Dov became angry. “What’s with you?” he shouted. “She’s my wife. It was your idea. You’re the one who wanted the divorce. You’re the one who said I should marry her.”

“Only to bring her out of Nazi Europe,” Chaia said softly.

All the while, Sarah was silent.

Dov wanted to make light of the situation. He made jokes and encouraged the sisters to sing together. But Chaia and Sarah were quiet.

Chaia drank too much wine. She dozed. Dov spoke to her softly, gently, “Come Chaiale. Come to bed.” He carried her to their bed. She nuzzled close. Her head fit snugly under his square jaw. Her arms twined around his neck.

The next night, again Chaia drank too much wine. She dozed in her seat. She woke to find the scented candle blown out. She remembered hearing whispering from Sarah’s bed. She remembered lying still, pretending to be asleep, when Dov, towards dawn, came to their bed. She rose early and walked the streets till it was time to go to work.

That evening Chaia walked like a drugged person to her apartment. The cobbled streets of Old Jaffa did not excite her as they had before. She bumped into a clay urn of geraniums that stood between her and her neighbors front door. She broke some geraniums as she looked for her front door key.

Dov opened the front door, his face wreathed in smiles. Sarah was busy in her corner. Chaia brushed past Dov. She fed the cat and watered the plants.

Sarah was quiet. “Not even an apology or an explanation,” Chaia thought.

Dov tried to cuddle Chaia, to kiss her. She slipped out from under his arms and fled to the door. But Dov was quicker. He barred the door.

“We have to talk,” he said, the playfulness gone.

They sat on the low cushions. Chaia, as was her habit when nervous, played with the fringe of the Bedouin carpet. Sarah stroked the cat.

“I have a solution,” Dov said. The sisters looked at him. “It has been done before. Our forefathers had many wives. Remember, Jacob worked for seven years for Rachel but was tricked by her father into taking Leah in marriage. He worked another seven years for Rachel.”

“Why not Chaia?” Sarah asked. “You are all the family I have. Who knows what will become of Mamma and Papa?

Chaia looked from one to the other. “Could this be my husband and my sister?” she wondered. She shivered, reached for the bottle of wine and hugged it to herself.

That night Dov tried to get both sisters in the same bed. When he saw Chaia was not willing he went to Sarah’s bed.

Chaia did not remember how long they lived like that. She had become the outsider.

What was worse was that her menses were late. The one thing she had dreamed of, had wished for, the one thing that was to make her life perfect now seemed like a nightmare. “I can’t be pregnant! Not from two nights,” she thought.

The nausea started. Sarah found Chaia retching. She called Dov. Both were concerned.

“It must have been the lebenia that made my tummy turn,” Chaia lied.

Dov and Sarah soon forgot that Chaia was not feeling well. They were excited about hitchhiking to Haifa for the weekend. They would stop at Kibbutz Maagan Michael on their way.

“Remember my friend Rueven, Chaia, the one who joined Maagan Michael?”

From Maagan Michael they would go to the Roman amphitheater in Caesaria. Dov wanted to show Sarah his favorite place.

“That unfeeling inhumane bastard!” Chaia cried. “How could he!” Caesaria was where they had first made love and where they had spoken of marriage.

Chaia remembered that during that time she came home as late as possible. It was dangerous to walk alone after dark. Arabs were angry because Jews were entering Palestine. Two Halutzim had been attacked. The newspapers and the radio were full of cautions. Yet Dov and Sarah did not notice that Chaia came home late at night – just to sleep. They did not notice that she had lost weight and that her cheeks were sunken and her skin drawn tight.

Chaia remembered that she was feverish during that time. “I’d rather die than tell them that I am pregnant,” she said. Already her stomach was protruding. Soon Dov and Sarah would be able to guess.

She wore loose caftans and long shawls. Only at the condoctoria where she worked did people notice her pregnancy and her feverishness.

Her customers knew her husband had gone to fetch her sister and had returned.

“We’re happy to hear that everything worked out well,” they said. “It’s a pity you look so pale, so thin,” they said.

“Yes,” Chaia lied, trying to smile. “It’s the nausea.”

Chaia looked for work far from Jaffa. She had heard that in Bnei-Brak a small factory, Osem, was looking for people to make noodles. She interviewed with one of the brothers who owned Osem. It was agreed that she would start work the following Sunday.

After working at Osem a few days, Chaia searched for a place to live. She knew questions would be asked of a single pregnant woman. She concealed her protruding abdomen and was able to rent a room in an apartment a few blocks from Osem.

Before her move to Bnei-Brak, Chaia spent her free time at the condoctoria. She could not bear to be with Dov and Sarah. She preferred to lie to her former employers, to say that Dov was working late and rather than spend her time alone in the apartment she would help them.

She had told her employers and customers that Dov made good money and since he was concerned about her health, especially with the baby coming, they had decided that she should stop working.

The day before Sukkoth, she walked up the cobbled stairway to her apartment for the last time. She was thankful that Dov and Sarah were not home.

She had prearranged with a porter to move her belongings. He helped her bring her mattress down. The down comforter and pillow that her mother had given her when she left Poland for Palestine, she hugged close to her body as she walked to the porters’ three-wheeled bicycle

“Are Mamma and Papa still living?” she wondered. Hitler had invaded Poland.

Chaia put her clothes in a clean sheet and tied it in a knot. She took two candles, some matches, and two oranges from the bowl on the windowsill. She sobbed as she stroked the cat goodbye.

The porter let her sit on her mattress as he cycled to Bnei-Brak.

Chaia woke from her reverie, “How many years ago was that?” she asked. She did not know.

She remembered being gaunt and malnourished. She remembered that except for the protuberance at her abdomen, she had no flesh, and that her bones showed through her skin.

She remembered how she became frantic when she felt the baby move or when she saw the outline of a heel or a hand. She loved and hated this child.

“I gave it up for adoption,” she thought.

Yet, a door in her mind opened.

She had hidden the pregnancy well. No one knew, or if they suspected, they did not ask.

A detached mocking voice throbbed in her head. “One day the pains started. You went to work, remember?”

Chaia remembered sweat pouring from her body, drenching her clothes. When her fellow workers saw her bent over in pain, they tried to help her.

She pushed them aside. “I ate green apricots,” she said. They nodded, apricot sickness was common in the late spring.

“Go home. Rest. Drink lots of fluid,” one of the owners said.

Chaia was bent over. Her left hand clutched the edge of the table. She waved her refusal with the other. She was in too much agony to talk.

“I’ll keep your job,” he assured her. He motioned to another woman who worked with Chaia. “Tovia, take her home. See if you can make her comfortable.”

Chaia remembered walking, cramping, contracting, home.

“Maybe I take you to the hospital,” Tovia said. “This is more than apricot sickness.”

“I live with my sister and her husband,” Chaia lied. “My sister’s a nurse. She’ll take care of me.”

Chaia dropped her shawl to hide the blood that was starting to drip. Her dress, soaked in her perspiration, hid her water as it broke and streamed down her thighs. Each step got harder. The birth opening widened. The child was pushing. With each contraction it jammed its head further forward. Only by sheer will did Chaia reach her apartment.

She closed the door and fell onto the floor. The child, insistent, pushed his way out. Chaia woke to a wail. She lifted the child from her mangled skirt. “A boy!” she whispered.

She wiped his nostrils, his eyes and mouth, and put him to her breast.

She covered the child with a clean part of her skirt and her shawl. She remembered nausea, pain, dullness, jumbled together. She remembered moving the child to her other breast, then cupping him close to her body as she dragged herself across the floor to her box of belongings and pulled out a towel with which to cover him.

She fainted. Later – she did not know how much later – she became aware of the moon shinning through the window. She saw the child’s head on her breast and remembered that she had given birth. She held the child close. She did not notice that the child was cold.

Again she lost consciousness. When she became aware of her surroundings the following day her throat was seared with thirst.

Memory of the child had been erased. All Chaia remembered was that there had been a time when she was very sick.

“What became of the child?” she now asked.

The voice in her head banged against her skill. “It died. That’s what it did. And you – on the second night – without giving him a name, took his corpse into the orange grove behind the apartments.”

“No!” she screamed.

“Yes, you did. You took a small bundle and a spade.”

“Where would I find a spade?”

“You broke the lock on your neighbor’s storeroom.”

“I was weak. I had no strength.”

“To break the lock. To find the spade, the devil gave you strength.”

“Rabenu shel Olam,” Chaia moaned.

“You dug a grave. You buried the dead child.”

“No!” Chaia shrieked. “No! Surely I was mad.”

“Yes,” the voice mocked. “You slept in your filth for days. When your strength returned, you drank water, you cleaned the mess. The clothes and afterbirth you were too weak to bury. You hid them under some fallen branches in the orange grove.”

“Stop!” Chaia begged as she covered her ears.

She rocked back and forth. “It must be true. All these years I blocked all memory of the child. Now these two, Dov and Sarah, they come to my neighborhood. They dig up the memory of the child.”

Feverishly Chaia lifted the lid of the wooden crate in which she kept her belongings. At the bottom she found, hidden, in a white linen tablecloth from her hope chest, the baby garments the old woman had warned her against making. Two knitted jackets, a cap, booties, and some diapers.

She put the tiny pile on the floor in the middle of her room. She found the memorial candle she kept for her parents. Not knowing the date of their death, she had randomly chosen June 13th as their memorial day. Each year, on the eve of that day, she would light a candle for them.

“Dear Lord,” she muttered. “I did not even name him. Abraham. Yes, Abraham be his name.”

She lit the candle and started praying. “Magnified and sanctified be the glory of God….” She stuck another match and dropped it on the baby clothes, then pressed them to her breast without pausing as she recited the prayers for the dead.


©2003 Miriam Ben-Yaacov


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