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fiction by Savyon Liebrecht, translated by Barbara Harshav

Apples from the Desert

All the way from the Orthodox quarter of Sha’arei Hesed in Jerusalem to the great stretch of sand where the driver called out “Neve Midbar” and looked for her in his rear-view mirror, Victoria Abra-vanel — her heart pounding and her fists clenched — had only one thing on her mind. She took some bread in brown paper and an apple with a rotten core out of her string bag and joined the blessing on the fruit to the prayer for travel, as prescribed. Her eyes were fixed on the yellowing landscape spread out in front of her — and her heart was fixed on her rebellious daughter Rivka who left the Orthodox neighborhood six months ago and went to live on a kibbutz of secular Jews. Now, Victoria had found out from her sister Sara that Rivka was sharing a room with a boy, sleeping in his bed and living as his wife.

All through the eight-hour trip, she pondered how she would act when she was face to face with her daughter: maybe she would cajole her as if she weren’t angry with her, teach her about a girl’s honor in a man’s eyes, explain sensitive issues, one woman to another. Or maybe she would start out with cries of despair, shout out the grief, the disgrace that Rivka had brought down on their noble family, shriek like a funeral mourner until the neighbors heard. Or maybe she would perform her mission stealthily, draw her daughter away from there with false news and then put her in her room under lock and key and obliterate all trace of her. maybe she would terrify her, tell her about Flora, Yosef Elal-ouf’s daughter, who fell in love with some boy, gave up her virginity for him and he deserted her; so she lost her mind and wandered around the streets, pulling little children by the ear.

On the road from Beer Sheva, she came up with something new: she would attack the boy with her nails, rip off his skin and poke out his eyes for what he did to this change-of-life daughter of hers. Her daughter would come back to Jerusalem with her. Which was what she promised her sister: “I’ll bring her back by the hair.”

From her sister Sara, Victoria already knew that her daughter was sixteen when she met him. He was an army officer and was brought in to tell them about military service for Orthodox girls. Later on, there was a fuss about letting people from the army come and poison the girls but the venom had already worked on Rivka. Cunningly, he’d send her letters, through a friend, even after he went back to his kibbutz. And she, the fool, who was known for neither grace nor beauty — even when she was a baby, people would mistake her for a boy — she fell for it, and when she was eighteen, she picked up and went to him in the desert.

The further Victoria got from Beer Sheva, the more her heroic spirit deserted her and the pictures in her imagination made her sigh: What if Rivka turned her back on her and threw her out? What if the boy raised his hand to hit her? How would she spend the night if they locked her out and the bus doesn’t leave till tomorrow morning? What if they didn’t get her message? She didn’t know anything about travelling, hadn’t been out of the neighborhood since the barren Shifra Ben-Sasson of Tiberias gave birth four years ago.

But when the driver called out “Neve Midbar” again and found her in his mirror, she got off the bus, pulling her basket behind her. She stood there in the sand, the dry wind struck her throat. How could you leave the pure air and beautiful mountains of Jerusalem — and come here?

By the time she came to a path and found a woman to ask about Rivka, drops of sweat were streaming from her kerchief. Coming toward them, on the opposite path, was a girl also wearing pants whose hair was cut short. “Here’s Rivka,” said the woman. Just as Victoria was about to say: “That’s not the one I meant” — she recognized her daughter and burst into a shout which rang like weeping. The girl put down the laundry basket she was carrying and ran to her, her head thrust forward and her eyes weeping.

“What’s this . . . what’s this …” Victoria scratched her nose. “Where are your braids? And those pants… That’s how you dress… oy vey!” Rivka laughed: “I knew that’s what you’d say. I wanted to get dressed but I didn’t have time. I thought you’d come on the four o’clock bus. When did you leave home? Six? Come on. Enough crying. Here’s our room. And here’s Dubi.”

Stunned by the short hair, the frayed trousers with patches on the back and the shoes spotted with chicken droppings, Victoria found herself squeezed in two big arms, a fair face was close to hers and a male voice said: “Hello, Mother!’ Her basket was already in his hand and she — not understanding herself, her hands suddenly light — was drawn after her daughter into a shaded room and seated on a chair. There was a glass of juice in her hand at once; her eyes looked but didn’t know what they saw and, later on, she’d remember only the double bed covered with a patchwork quilt and the voice of the giant with golden hair saying: “Welcome, Mother!’ And, as soon as she heard him say “mother” again, very clearly, she swallowed some juice which went down the wrong way and started choking and coughing; the two of them rushed to her and started pounding her on the back like a child.

“Leave me alone’,’ she said weakly and pushed them away.” “Let me look at you” she said after a moment. Once again she scolded Rivka: “What is this, those pants! Those are your Sabbath shoes?” Rivka laughed: “I’m working in the chicken coop this week. They brought in new hens. I usually work in the vegetable garden. Just this week in the chicken coop.”

Weary from the journey, confused by what she was seeing, shaken by the vicissitudes of the day and straining to repress her rage which was getting away from her in spite of herself, and always remembering her mission, Victoria sat down with her daughter Rivka and talked to her as she had never talked with her children before in her life. She didn’t remember what she talked about and she didn’t remember when the boy who called her mother left, only her eyes saw and knew: her daughter’s face looked good. Not since Rivka was a little girl had she seen her eyes sparkle like that. Even her short hair, Victoria admitted to herself, made her look pretty. Not like when she wore a skirt and stockings, with her broad shoulders, like a man dressed up in women’s clothes.

“You don’t miss the neighborhood?” “Sometimes. On holidays. I miss the Shabbat table and the songs and Aunt Sara’s laugh. But I like it here. I love working outside with the animals … You too, I miss you a lot.”

“And Papa?” Victoria asked in a whisper into the evening light filtering in.

“Papa doesn’t care about anybody. Especially not me. All day long in the store and with his books and his prayers. Like I’m not his daughter.”

“God forbid! Don’t say such a thing.” Victoria was scared. Of the truth.

“He wanted to marry me off to Yekutiel’s son. Like I was a widow or a cripple.”

“They talked. You heard. We don’t make forced matches. And anyway, Yekutiel’s son is a genius.”

“A pale, sick genius, like he sits in a pit all day long. And anyway, I don’t love him.”

“What do you think? You think love is everything?”

“What do you know about love?”

“What does that mean?” Victoria was offended and sat up straight. “This is how you talk to your mother around here?”

“You didn’t love Papa and he didn’t love you!’ Rivka ignored her and went on in the silence that descended: “I, at home … I wasn’t worth much.”

“And here?” Victoria asked in a whisper.

“More.”

A question began to take shape in Victoria’s mind about Dubi, the fair-haired giant but the door opened, a light suddenly came on and he himself said: “Great that you’re saving electricity. I brought something to eat. Yoghurt and vegetables on a new plastic plate, that’s okay, isn’t it? Then, Rivka, you should take Mother to Osnat’s room. It’s empty. She must be tired.”

In the room that went out to the darkening fields, Victoria tried to get things straight in her heart. But years of dreariness had dulled her edge and yet she already knew: she wouldn’t bring her daughter back to Jerusalem by the hair.

“Why did it take you half a year to come here?” Rivka asked.

“Your Papa didn’t want me to come.”

“And you, you don’t have a will of your own?” And Victoria didn’t have an answer.

When Dubi came to take her to the dining hall, she poured all her rage on him and yet she was drawn to him and that only increased her wrath.

“What’s this Dubi, what kind of name is that?” Anger pulled words out of her mouth.

“It’s Dov, after my mother’s father. The Germans killed him in the war.”

“That’s a good name for a baby, Dov?” she hardened her heart against him.

“I don’t mind!’ he shrugged and then stopped and said with comic seriousness: “But if you do — I’ll change it tomorrow!’ She strained to keep from laughing.

In the evening, the two of them sat at the table with their eyes on Rivka as if she were all alone in the big hall, walking around with a serving cart, asking people what they wanted.

“You want something else to drink, Mother?” she heard him ask and returned the question angrily:

“you call me mother. What kind of mother am I to you?”

“I’m dying for you to be my mother.”

“Really? So, who’s stopping you?” she asked and her sister Sara’s mischievousness crept into her voice.

“Your daughter.”

“How is she stopping you?”

“She doesn’t want to be my wife.”

“My daughter doesn’t want to get married. That’s what you’re telling me?”

“Exactly.”

As she was still struggling with what he said, he started telling her about the apple orchard he was growing. An American scientist who grew apples in the Nevada desert sent him special seeds. You plant them in tin cans full of organic fertilizer and they grow into trees as high as a baby with little roots and sometimes they produce fruit in the summer like a tree in the Garden of Eden. Apples love the cold, he explained as their eyes wandered after Rivka, and at night, you have to open the plastic sheets and let the desert cold in. At dawn, you have to close the sheets to preserve the cold air and keep the heat out.

“Really she muttered, hearing these words now and thinking about what he said before. Meanwhile, somebody came to her and said: “You’re Rivka’s mother? Congratulations on such a daughter!’ And suddenly her heart swelled in her.

Then she remembered something that came back to her from long ago and far away. She was fifteen years old. On Saturdays in the synagogue, she used to exchange glances with Moshe Elkayam, the goldsmith’s son, and then she would lower her eyes to the floor. In the women’s section, she would push up to the wooden lattice to see his hands that worked silver and gold and precious stones. Something arose between them without any words and his sister used to smile at her in the street. But when the matchmaker came to talk to her about Shaul Abravanel, she didn’t dare hurt her father who wanted a scholar for a son-in-law.

At night, when Rivka took her back to her room, she said: “You came to take me back to Jerusalem, right?”

Her mother chose not to answer. After a pause, she said apropos of nothing: “Don’t do anything dumb.”

“I know what I want. Don’t worry about me.”

Victoria plucked up her courage: “Is it true what he told me, that you don’t want to marry him?”

“That’s what he told you?”

“Yes or no?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

“Where did you learn that?”

“From you.”

“How?” Victoria was amazed.

“I don’t want to live like you and Papa.”

“How?”

“Without love.”

“Again, love!” She beat her thighs until they trembled. A gesture of rage without rage. They reached the door. Victoria thought a moment about the bed with the patchwork quilt and heard herself asking: “And the Sh’ma at bedtime, do you say that?”

“No.”

“You don’t say the Sh’ma?”

“Only sometimes, silently. So even I don’t hear it myself!’ said Rivka, laughed and kissed her mother on the cheek. Then she said: “Don’t get scared if you hear jackals. Goodnight!’ Like a mother soothing her child.

Facing the bare sand dunes stretching soft lines into the frame of her window as into the frame of a picture, Victoria said a fervent prayer, for both of them, her and Rivka. Her heart both heavy and light: “… Let not my thoughts trouble me, nor evil dreams, nor evil fancies, but let my rest be perfect before Thee….”

And at night she dreamed.

In the dream a man approaches white curtains and she sees him from behind. The man moves the curtain aside and the trees of the Garden of Eden are in front of him: the tree of life and the tree of knowledge and beautiful trees in cans of organic fertilizer. The man goes to the apple tree, there is a lot of fruit on it and the fruit drops off and rolls into his hands and, suddenly, the fruit is small and turns into stones. Victoria sees: handfuls of precious stones and gold and silver in his white fingers. Suddenly, the man turns his face and it’s Moshe Elkayam the goldsmith’s son and his hair is flaming.

All the way back to Sha’arei Hesed she sat, her eyes still holding onto their rage but her heart soothed, her basket at her feet and, on her lap, a sack of apples hard as stones that Dubi gave her. She remembered her daughter asking: “You see that everything’s fine, right?” — her fingers on her mother’s cheek; and Dubi’s voice saying:  “It’ll be fine, Mother.”

All the way, she pondered what she would tell her husband and her sister. Maybe she would sit them down and tell exactly what happened to her. When the bus passed the junction, she considered it. How could she describe to her sister, who had never known a man, or to her husband, who had never touched her with love — how could she describe the boy’s eyes on her daughter’s face? When the mountains of Jerusalem appeared in the distance, she knew what she would do.

From her sister, who could read her mind, she wouldn’t keep a secret. She’d pull her kerchief aside, put her mouth up to her ear, like when they were children, and whisper: “Sarike, we’ve spent our lives alone, you without a husband and me with one. My little daughter taught me something. And us, remember how we thought she was a bit backward, God forbid? How I used to cry over her? No beauty, no grace, no intelligence or talent and as tall as On, King of Bashan. We wanted to marry her off to Yekutiel and they were doing us a favor, like Abravanel’s daughter wasn’t good enough for them. Just look at her now!’ — Here she would turn her face to the side and spit spiritedly against the evil eye. “Milk and honey. Smart too. And laughing all the time. Maybe, with God’s help, we’ll get pleasure from her.”

And to her husband, who never read her heart, she would give apples in honey, put both hands on her hips and say: “We don’t have to worry about Rivka. It’s good for her there, thank God. We’ll hear good things from her soon. Now, taste that and tell me: apples that ripen in summer and they put them in organic fertilizer and their roots are small — did you ever hear of such a thing in your life?”

Translated from the Hebrew by Barbara Harshav First published in Israel in 1987 by Sifriat Poalim, publishing house of Kibbutz Arzi, Ltd.

Copyright © by Savyon Liebrecht , English Translation Copyright © by Barbara Harshav. Worldwide Translation Copyright © by The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature. This story is published in “Apples from the Desert: Selected Stories” by Savyon Liebrecht  published by The Feminist Press, 1998, New York.

fiction by Savyon Liebrecht

Savyon Liebrecht: ‘WRITING IS A NEED’

Savyon Liebrecht began writing seriously at the age of 18 while serving in the Israeli army. She had requested a military post on a kibbutz where, she strategized, “I could have a room of my own to write.” One year and one “terrible” novel later, Liebrecht decided that “I wanted after all to see what the real army was like. They sent me to a military camp in the Negev, and then the Six-Day War broke out. I was close to the front,” she says, without irony, “I was a secretary to a high officer.”

At 33, Liebrecht began attending a weekly writers’ workshop led by Amalia Kahana-Carmon. “Amalia was the first to take a story of mine and give it to an editor,” says Liebrecht. This was Liebrecht’s big break. “Amalia is still the first to see my stories.”

Writing at a computer at her home in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Liebrecht shares her office space serially with her psychologist-husband (who was born in Italy, raised in Chile, and came to Israel 30 years ago). He sees his clients afternoons; she writes mornings and late at night.

Does Liebrecht perceive any differences between male and female fiction writers in Israel? “We cover the same topics, we write in the same styles,” she says. “Women, though, tend to write later in life. We don’t start writing seriously until we are in our 30′s. Men — like Yehoshua, Oz, Grossman — typically start in their early 20′s. We women publish around 35. We invest more energy in our personal lives, and only after the children grow up and the family is established do we start taking care of ourselves and our own needs. Writing is a need,” she emphasizes.

Liebrecht notes a difference between Dor Ha-Palmach (the generation of writers who came of age around 1948) and her own generation of writers. “Then the central Israeli experience was war, and women were excluded from that. Now the central Israeli issues are available to both male and female writers: the conflicts between Arabs and Israelis, the way Holocaust survivors have rebuilt their lives here in Israel, the conflicts between the religious and the non-religious.

“Also, all the time now, more and more women are writing,” she says. “For example, here’s something new – a woman writing detective stories: Batya Gur. Also, more and more second-generation Holocaust survivors are breaking the silence that’s been going on for 40 years – Lili Perry-Amitai, myself, Dorit Peleg. Such a long time has passed. There’s a need now to say things out loud.”

Liebrecht herself, born in Munich in 1948 and brought to Israel as an infant, is the child of survivors; her father lost his first wife and child during the Holocaust.

Besides her two collections of short stories, Apples from the Desert and Horses on the Highway, Liebrecht has written scripts for television and two (not yet produced) plays. She has two children, Maayan, 12, and Elad, 7.