December 07

Light Fell

Evan Fallenberg

The following is an excerpt for Zeek from Light Fell by Evan Fallenberg.

After changing into a roomy housedress and a knitted sweater pulled loose with age and use, Rebecca sneaks out the front of the house as quietly as possible, careful not to let the screen door slam shut. She heads around to the back of the property toward Grandfather’s cottage, but stops at the old shed, where she thinks she may have mislaid her gardening gloves. The heavy wooden door needs coaxing, but Rebecca knows all the secrets of this farm; she slips her foot in the wide gap between the cement floor and the bottom of the door and lifts it slightly before pushing it open.

The air is tight in the shed, and she hears feet scampering as her eyes adjust to the dim light. Sixty years of moshav living are buried here, a history in miniature of the State of Israel since its inception: wire cots provided to new immigrants on their first nights in the country; a mesh coop for babies, where Rebecca could leave the boys in the fresh air without worrying about mosquitoes or bees or stray cats; a rocking horse sent by Joseph’s Aunt Lotte, who escaped to America before the war and lives there still; doorless armoires and cane chairs with no seats; a pile of waterlogged mattresses; an old radio the size of a child’s coffin; and several generations of farm equipment, from milking machines to feed-grinders to chick incubators. Rebecca feels more at home in this small, dark, overcrowded room than anywhere else in the world, and it is here that a suffocating despair suddenly squeezes at her chest. For the first time in as long as she can remember she is terrified. Not for her boys, out there colliding with life, accruing bruises and scars; not for her father-in-law or for her mother, both reaching great old age and inevitable decline; certainly not for Joseph, whom she once pitied for turning his back on so much love: now, at the thought of her own futureless future, she is terrified for herself. Amid the discarded junk of the cramped shed she pictures scalpels and hospital gowns, oxygen machines and body scanners. She pictures pain so sharp it sears her belly and she doubles over, her breathing ragged. She pictures nausea and fatigue. She pictures herself surrounded by her sons, and she pictures her own loneliness. But before she can picture her death she straightens to full height, unfurls her fists, breathes. She pushes the unwanted images away, tries to remember what it was that brought her to the shed, and casts about for her gardening gloves. She remembers that the men are waiting for her, and her gloves are nowhere in sight, so she backs out of the shed and picks her way through the sand and weeds to Grandfather’s cottage, wiping away her anxiety with the back of her hand.

She finds Daniel on his knees in front of the toilet, a metal coil plunged deep into the bowl. Manfred, his grandfather, is sitting on a stool in the corner, scribbling on a small pad of paper. “Then you divide the whole sum in half and you get the year of your birth. So let’s see. Two into one hundred and thirty-six. Yes. So, you were born in '68, no? Am I right?”

Grandfather looks first to Daniel’s stooped back then to Rebecca for confirmation. “Guten morgen, Rebecca. Das ist richtig, ya—1968?

She knows this trick of his. He has performed it on every human being whose birthday Rebecca can recall. He has guessed her mother’s birth year, her friend Rosa’s, all of her cousins’. Unlike so many other things, it has never failed him. “Yes, Opa, Daniel was born in 1968.”

From the toilet comes the sound of a loud burp. “There we go,” says Daniel, standing. The metal coil dredges up a huge wad of muck, which Daniel lifts carefully to a bucket. He flushes and the water runs freely. “Just overstuffed,” he says to his mother. He crouches down in front of his grandfather and says in a near shout, “Opa, you can’t put so much toilet paper into the bowl at one time. You’ll clog up this old toilet again and again so just flush before you’re finished and then again when you’re all done.”

Grandfather stands up so abruptly he nearly knocks Daniel backward. Still, he grabs his grandson’s arm to steady himself. Rebecca sees he is insulted but she is not sure by what. Perhaps it is Daniel’s manner of speaking to him, as if to a child; perhaps he is embarrassed by Daniel’s forthrightness, talking of private matters so candidly. Rebecca knows he will never agree to waste that much water by flushing twice. Maybe he is even a bit perturbed that Daniel has not acknowledged the birth year trick.

She motions to Daniel to gather his tools and go straight back to the house. She follows Grandfather to his kitchen, where she finds him rinsing a bowl in the sink. “Opa?” she calls lightly to him from behind. She notices for the first time the way his head has begun to sink beneath the horizon of his shoulders, how soon he and she will be of equal height. He does not turn around or acknowledge her in any way.

Late in the afternoon Manfred will appear with a bouquet of anemones and cyclamen he has picked from the flower garden next to his cottage. He will be neatly groomed, wearing the shirt she ironed for him this morning. His trousers will be worn to a shine but he will not allow Rebecca to buy him new ones. She will be dressed in an old gray wool skirt, too tight at the hips, and a pink blouse, with a shawl thrown over her shoulders and wrapped snugly to cover her expanding middle. Her hair will still be wet from the shower.

His only concession to age will be Rebecca’s arm, upon which he will lean during their walk to the synagogue. The sun will have slid behind the dunes that block their view to the sea, and the sky will hover between light and night. High up in a eucalyptus tree, far above the remnants of the tree house the boys built and abandoned a dozen or more years ago, a family of bulbuls will chatter and squawk as it settles down for the night. Rebecca will catch a glimpse of a marten, long and low, slinking toward a neighbor’s coop for a raid on the hens. He will wreak havoc there, shredding the birds to bloody pieces until he has had his fill, and will cause the death of countless others whose weak hearts will give way from fear and commotion.

Several paces past the coop Manfred will stop short. “Did you ever notice this warm current of air. Right here, always the same spot. It’s only here on Shabbat, never during the week.” He will tilt his head back and his nose will quiver like a dog’s. “Curious,” he will say, shutting his eyes. He will sway with the breeze, coming to life only when he nearly loses his balance. Rebecca will pull him forward up the path. Ahead she will see only the dome of the synagogue above the line of tall firs. She will think about what lies ahead: the peaceful service, the rabbi’s short and pleasant speech, the way the women’s section glows in pale yellow light. And after services, outside the great wooden doors, how they will all stand, shivering slightly in the winter cold, how the children will play tag between their fathers’ legs, how the grandparents and great-grandparents will shuffle slowly toward home, how the younger married women will parade their hats. It is almost Purim, she will think, then Passover, then Independence Day, her favorite season of the year.

All at once she will feel a deep and terrible sadness for her ex-husband. He will have missed all this, he even chose to abandon it. But she, if she can only keep sickness at bay long enough, she will surely be privileged soon to watch her own grandchildren play tag here; she will witness the march of the generations and take her place in a chain of people and events that no longer has anything to do with her but in fact depends on her very existence. Her youngest son is married. Surely the older boys will begin to marry soon and then babies – a dozen at least, oh certainly more than that – will roll and tumble into her quiet life and she will make time for them all and teach them her little bits of Swiss wisdom, tell them Alpine stories, feed them European delicacies, drape a sweater over her shoulders and push their prams around and around the moshav. Poor Joseph, she will muse. He has worked so hard to get everything he wished for, while she has wished for nothing and will be boundlessly content with the tiniest, subtlest pleasures. If only she can stay alive.


Images: Exorcism Triptych, I'm With Stupid,and Model For Installation by Gabriela Vainsencher.


Evan Fallenberg is a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and has lived in Israel since 1985, where he works as a writer, teacher, and translator.