A Note from the Editor
This month Zeek offers readers a preview of S. Yizhar’s Preliminaries, beautifully rendered in English by acclaimed translator Nicholas de Lange and forthcoming from The Toby Press. At the age of seventy-five and already established as one of the masters of modern Hebrew literature, Yizhar published this autobiographical novel, which scholar Dan Miron describes as the author’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Boy.” Like much of Yizhar’s earlier work, Preliminaries portrays the personal costs of the struggle to establish Israel, played out against a backdrop of bloody conflict. Yizhar’s work is noted for its strong moral commitments, its stream-of-consciousness technique, and its eroticized images of the Israeli landscape. This excerpt, “Sting,” serves as an excellent introduction to these hallmarks of Yizhar’s lyric style. Here, the panic and terror of a pioneering father whose son is badly stung by wasps seems to almost outstrip language and thought. His interior monologue culminates in a desperate prayer, and reveals the sacrifices made by both father and son in the effort to tame an inhospitable environment.
Adam Rovner, Hebrew Translations Editor
Did he cry out? Did he hear a cry? – he can’t remember but he’s already at the boy’s side, already he’s in his arms, everything, dropped, everything, and runs, runs stumbling, runs to him, and the mule continues with the plough on its side leaping and cutting with the handle on its side, the child, what is it, my boy, what is it, but he knows already, too shocked to believe, a scorpion? a snake? no, bees? A seething mass of golden things buzzing angrily raspingly all round and waving at them with his big hat, which you mustn’t do, and with his foot kicking at them at the air, to shoo them away and to kick at them, bees, damn them, wasps, looking at the child in his arms with terror, what is it, my boy, what is it, my boy, gurgling now for lack of air and the shock of the burning pain, trying to catch some air, not to choke, with his tiny hands, and his neck, his neck, God, not screaming because he can’t, now he’s fainting, my boy, my boy, what is it, his hands seem to be chasing something away or explaining something, demanding something, quick quick, something that is beyond him, clenching and opening as if trying to push something away or the opposite, trying to catch something, what is it, my boy, what is it, my boy, impossible pain, deadly pain, oh no, oh no, God, run run, fear, crazed with fear, a helpless urge, and the impossible pain, and Daddy and with his hands and his kicks in the air trying to shoo them away, both of them one now, all fastened to his breast, what is it, my boy, what is it, my boy, driving them away, flying furiously, flying all around, running to run home to run, and the big hat dropped, running with heavy shoes, with no feet, and already, and calling for help too, or not calling and running, or running and calling, and Mummy now, oh God, what is it, my boy, breathing, look what I’ve brought you, he can breathe, how many bites here, and on the neck, and here look, red and all poisoned with venom, what is it, my boy, God what, and sometimes just one is enough, God, don’t let, breathing, choking fainting so small so small, why? why?
What did he do to them that they suddenly, all against him? How can a father have sat a baby down on a wasps’ nest? Aren’t there always wasps near a carob tree, isn’t it dangerous, isn’t it, God, their nest in a hole in the ground, and when one of them stings they all attack, and who, curse them, who, what has he done to you, what, who on earth sits a baby down on a wasps’ nest, you criminal, they beset me, yea they surrounded me, they beset me like bees, why, why, my boy, in the name of the Lord I cut them off, they beset me and surrounded me, what’s happening now, run, to Mummy, what now, hurry to the doctor quick, quick as we can, get the cart ready, quick it’s three hours to the doctor, what is it my boy, so red so swollen fainting so sobbing so, he’s suffocating, oh no, God, I cut them off, they encompassed me, yea they encompassed me, and on those tiny hands too and on the legs, luckily not on the face, but yes, the eyes, oh the eyes, so much so much, what will happen, run, Mummy, get the cart ready, wrap him in a warm towel, or a cold one, how a cold one, how, quick, quick, all in a torrent, all together, in an instant, as though bursting, both together, pressed to his heart, the child, the running, the terror, to shout, to cry out, to call for help, look look, quick quick, and tell us how dangerous it is, someone who knows, say, how far, think straight, don’t lose the direction, what is straight, what does he know, to Mummy, she’ll know, she always does, always, in the name of the Lord, they beset me, yea they surrounded me, like a fire of thorns, what a panic she’ll be in, why why, what have you done to him, I did it, little child, breathe my precious breathe, run, faster, breathe my precious, no air to breathe, on the neck a sting there, so red everywhere, the whole face the whole neck, he mustn’t choke, quick, child hugged by Daddy, quick quick.
Then he knows not how Mummy is there, he is in her arms, and people, all around, how did it happen, what is it, run and harness get moving, just get moving, quick quick, an ambulance, quick, and catch that mule and from the plough to the cart, only be quick, people, be quick, and where’s the other mule, here’s Mummy, in her arms already, Mein Kind, Mummy, mein Kind, wrap him in something, and she kisses him and counts where, and breathes kisses near the edge of his breaths, he is sobbing with pain, fainting, give him something to drink, everything’s swollen, the face, how can it be so, choking and swollen and here all around, and Mummy more to her heart, oy, Gott Gottenyu, wrapping him all up and to her heart, mein Kind, wrapping and squeezing, and quick to the doctor, the male nurse from Ekron always comes here, or take a horse and Daddy gallop with the child in arms he and the child to the doctor, on the cart, they’re all here now, and suggestions, and somebody, the main thing is the face, it may not be dangerous, only it hurts so terribly, and all kinds of experts but he is so small, lost in a faint but his tiny breathing moaning inside him, make sure the tongue is out, not to block his jaw, and some water, how all of a sudden, and why, why, and quick quick
The other mule, the female, with the second cart that went to fetch the water up from the railway station, they may be back, and the horse, who knows where the horse is, they may have taken it to the Governor’s in Ramallah, they went off this morning and they’ll be back soon, now there’s only the mules quick and the cart, and wrap the child, cold water? warm water? only be quick, and quick it’s the two mules and the cart and Mummy and Daddy, and who will look after the older boy, and run along, why haven’t they harnessed yet, Daddy runs, other comrades run, that stupid mule is here but refuses the shafts, the idiot, and they push it, but it won’t go, and they push it, and it just resists and complains that it’s tired from the ploughing and hasn’t got the strength for running, and they should let it just breathe a little and just drink some water and just maybe roll in the dust, why not, throwing its head up and from side to side so they can’t get the bridle on, it backs, determined not to put up with any yoke, all whinnies of protest, in plain basic mule language, but now they’ve harnessed it, and now someone comes running up the hill with its partner, the she-mule from the water cart, that they’ve left on the track in the middle of everything and unharnessed that mule, and hurried it along too against its will, and whipped it despite its whinnies, and now they’re harnessing her and she doesn’t want to either, all unwilling, full of protests, and the first mule that’s already harnessed doesn’t want to either, and they throw in a sack of straw to sit on and the board for the driver and help Mummy up, and she wraps the child in a scarf, with the water jug next to her, and a cloth on the child’s forehead, to shade his face, God how swollen it is, unrecognisable, she doesn’t know where to start, swollen hurting sobbing and his eyes like a red mountain of swelling too red too terrible to look at, and Daddy is already standing up in the cart shouting Get a move on, and raising the whip, Daddy, raising and whipping, Daddy who has never whipped, and he shouts in a voice that is not his own Get along there get along with you, and now they are turning scraping, almost stumbling, swerving, and going down to the road, and only Faster you scum, faster, hurry faster, Daddy who has never whipped, and now he is gathering up the slack of the reins to whip, and whips with the whip and whips, where did he learn all this, where is it inside him all this time, and he shrieks in an unknown voice Faster you beasts, faster you scum faster, damn you, faster, and he whips, faster, he beats, faster, and he looks down at Mummy who is holding the child in her arms, to her heart, unconscious, breathing, still alive, mein Kind, she says to him, sobbing and stopping and sobbing and stopping and clutching him to her heart, mein Kind, she says, mein teyere Kind, she says, and quick quick
First of all they must go straight down and the shortest way to the beaten track, and then they will have to avoid Mansoura, and hurry round its edge, today there is no Mansoura and you won’t find it, it has been wiped out, it no longer exists, and in its place there is just a road, eucalyptus trees, and some stone ruins, but once you had to go round the edge of it, and its dogs, and sometimes stones too, and then already in the brown dusty plain and dust-weary grasses, to gallop and gallop towards the big village, in the red-brown dust, and along the sides of the plough beyond the field of sorghum, spilling slowly down to where a hill humps gently, and from there to the empty horizon, beyond which is a shimmering haze and a totally clean sky without anything. And they bounce over the embankment of the railway line to Jerusalem and then over the tracks themselves, gleaming as though they have just been polished, scraping over the heaped coarse gravel in which the sleepers are embedded one after the other as far as the eye can see, coming from some distant part and disappearing in a great arc to another distant part, and all of them, embankment, beams and rails, seem completely artificial and forced onto these fields, but that is not important now, here’s the wadi now, and they skirt it and go down onto the track through the fields and speed along it, and then they drop down into the great wadi, without avoiding it, and look out for a shallower gulley, to go down from the edge slowly, without upsetting everything, hurrying with difficulty through its marl full of pure sand looking for another gentle slope that will take them out on the other side without overturning, and the wretched mules have no desire to run all the time and hurry all the time and even when they do run they are only pretending to and have to be whipped and shouted at, and you only want to weep, and Mummy weeps, and enfolds in the scarf and to her heart the still breathing but not conscious child, whose pain is hers now, and how did it happen, to Daddy, and how could you let him, and even this not much, because everything is a rush now and confused and helpless, as though they are people abandoned in a wilderness with a child, and only to whip and hurry along there, faster, you beasts, faster, and how they don’t seem to have made any progress and how the journey does not seem to have been shortened at all and they alone with the fine dust thrown up against the sun, and quick quick
Then they are approaching the village, and damn it they always get lost in the narrow alleys and among the hovels and yards and the dogs and the children and even a few stones, until some grown-up silences the motley crowd and even kindly indicates how to get out of all this, and sometimes you even have to threaten with the whip those who hang on to the back of the cart or frighten the mules with malicious laughter, and all sorts of troublemakers, until they finally escape from the hedges of prickly pear and the smoke of tabbun and the stench of sheep-dung, and are ready to climb up the sand at the foot of that hill, beyond which they will be able to see the roofs, and they will sink in the sand and the mules will not be able to run even if you kill them, and meanwhile they are still here on this plain, in this dust in this sunlight, and he suddenly moans, God, and Mummy turns to him, what is it mein Kind, and wets his lips with water, and runs her hand over his face, he is swollen and his eyes are buried in a terrible swelling, and only little breaths, with almost no pulse, and she, it hurts, it hurts terribly, and he only groans, and she, Mummy’s here mein Kind, and he clenches, and she, not long now not long now, and he tries to swallow, perhaps, and she, it hurts, it hurts terribly, and he suddenly seems to sink, and she, not long now my child not long now, and so, and suchlike things, and quick quick