FICTION: Sons of Shuka
Life can be hard, even terrifying for a person who wakes up in the morning and doesn’t know where he wants to have his coffee. Yoram awoke on that morning–a wintery autumn morning–and decided to warm up with a strong cappuccino at Caesar’s, a 15-minute walk from his apartment.
He entered the café and nodded to the old-timer who was a regular there and sat down at a corner table. He skillfully spread out a paper that had already been stained by a moistened finger and chocolate and read: “With heartfelt sorrow we announce the untimely death of Shuka Tamari, beloved father, grandfather, brother, friend, soldier.”
Even though he hadn’t ordered anything, the waitress came by with coffee and a danish. “Anything new?” she asked as she carefully set down the cup. He smelled the faint scent of snuffed-out cigarettes and shampoo.
Without taking his eyes off the paper, Yoram answered with a voice full of sleep and coffee. “My friend died.”
At once he regretted telling her this. He wanted her to leave him alone, and didn’t raise his eyes even after she had said she was sorry.
In the hours that followed, his mouth tasting bitter from coffee and ailing gums, his attention wandering, he read the things he would normally read with interest on any other day. Among the letters and sports photos he scanned every morning, he saw the death notice framed in black, definite, final, and Shuka’s horrifying face, a face that at times would loom in the middle of the night among the sheets and blankets, and disappear as he woke, frightened and drenched in sweat.
They hadn’t spoken in over 30 years, but Shuka’s voice, which had changed after the war, sounded clear, as if he himself were announcing his own funeral taking place in the Herzlya cemetery at twelve-thirty.
He glanced at his watch: Ten-thirty.
Startled, he got up. With a weak, throaty, impotent voice he called across to the waitress, “Put that on my tab.”
The smell of his apartment reached him before he entered. He reproached himself for having left the radio on. They were just announcing that it would rain.
He checked the windows. He couldn’t find his umbrella. He looked in the mirror. His small, brown eyes were deep-set behind a large nose that dwarfed his bearded face. He shaved, combed his full head of white hair, put on a thick, black sweater made of Mongolian wool.
“That was Amir Lev’s ‘Black Clouds,'” the radio intoned. He shut it off. And left.
His pace slackened as he neared the cemetery. Fear and shame thickened in his chest as he approached the gate. He stopped. Twelve-twenty.
On the other side of the wall he saw a few people with familiar faces shaking hands. Some he recognized by their voice, others by their carriage. Next to him an ageless man was sitting on a bench, listening to a Walkman and eating an eggplant sandwich with tahini that was dribbling down the front of his coat. Yoram wiped his forehead with a handkerchief, wondering when the rain would come. Getting closer to the crowd of mourners, he lowered his head and said hello. They looked at him without expression, as if to locate a voice echoing in space. But Shuka’s wife recognized him at once. She got up from her plastic chair and came over to him.
“Yoram,” she whimpered. He offered a shaky hand.
She asked where had he been all these years, why had he disappeared; he must have known how much Shuka loved him. She told him about their sons. He couldn’t meet her eyes. His attention shifted toward a man who had fainted and the young woman nearby him, shouting, “Go get some water. What are you all staring at?”
“Yitgadal, v’yitkadash sh’mey rabba.” Four dark, tall men mumbled the prayer for the dead. Their faces were hidden behind sunglasses. When the grave was filled in, one of them raised his glasses to his brow. Yoram recognized the eyes of Micha–the son that was born before the war–who liked to play with keys and toy cars.
When it was all over Shuka’s wife leaned over his grave. Yoram didn’t know what to do. He bent down, picked up a stone as was customary, and placed it on the pile of moist earth.
One of the sons embraced his mother, saying nothing, but Yoram noticed tears coursing down his face from beneath his dark glasses. When he removed them, Yoram noticed that his eyes were like those of his father’s.
He felt compelled to say something to the family, but some force dragged him away. He’d wait for them outside.
“He knew how to live,” the man walking with him toward the gate remarked, It turned out that over the past years Shuka and his wife had travelled a lot–in South America, in the Far East, Alaska and Africa.
When Yoram reached the gate, he turned around and saw the small group of people moving together–the friends he no longer recognized, the wife and the four sons walking beside her. He turned back toward the gate. Without saying goodbye to anyone, he left.
He walked toward the train station, overwhelmed. As he got nearer he felt relief, but only once he was on the train did he understand that he had made a mistake–this train was headed north, toward Haifa.
The laughter of soldiers around him brought him back to the laughter of the soldiers then who didn’t know what was happening just a few kilometers to the south. The smell of burnt flesh began to haunt him. Shuka’s face, Uri’s screams and Shimon’s wailing that don’t leave him till this day as he reads his morning paper.
He got off at Haifa central station. He was hungry. He decided to take a little tour of the port. It began to drizzle–dampening his hair as he left the station–then it stopped. A thin man with a pock-marked face shouted, “Burekas and egg, burekas and egg, get your burekas and egg!”
He passed a stand that sold Russian newspapers and smelled like glue; he passed godforsaken travel agencies, where it seemed that no one had ever actually bought a ticket to anywhere. He ate a falafel, had a soft drink, and glanced at a newspaper stained with tahini and horrors. He asked if they had any Turkish coffee. They didn’t.
At six he began to feel cold and turned to walk back to the station. This time he passed sex shops with neon signs and unfamiliar music, a small restaurant that was closed, three Arabs smoking nearby, a shoe store that was just shutting down for the day.
He stopped. He realized that 30 years had passed since he was last here, and nothing had been forgotten. Shimon had spent his days in this store from the time he was 14. His father worked here and sold mezuzahs and candlesticks. Here was the awning–now being closed by a fat, reddish-faced man–that Shimon and his father had opened and closed for years. That same awning, the week Maccabee Tel-Aviv won the European Cup, had been covered with notices announcing the death of Shimon’s father.
When it was all over, he would take the train to Haifa once a week for almost four years. The desire to gaze into the face of the person who shared Shimon’s dreams, whose screams violently shook Yoram’s soul each night.
The father, who had stopped smiling, never recognized Yoram, standing outside the store looking at the old man who was arranging the yarmulkes and mezuzahs with a tender melancholy. Sometimes he bought something, like the last time, when he tried to strike up a conversation with the man whose face already held the imprint of death. He almost told him who he was. He almost confessed that he had heard his son cry, “Yoram, I’m burning! I’m on fire!” and had done nothing. He hadn’t even reported it over the field phone. When the arm of the team’s officer, Uri, had gone soaring like a bird into the red sky, he had just stood there like stone, trembling outside the tank, while near him Shuka regained his composure in a flash and had run back into the flaming horror, emerging, on fire, carrying what was left of the bodies.
Even then, Yoram had said nothing. He merely paid, nodded to the father and left.
Only a few people were waiting at the station. The air was cold and he began to cough violently. A short-haired woman of about 65 offered him a pill. He refused. He got onto the train and sat across from a young, auburn-haired woman, a college student reading a book. She smiled at him politely. He smoothed over his woolen sweater and attempted to speak with her, but quickly saw, despite her good manners, that he was bothering her.
“Okay, I won’t disturb you,” he said, immediately regretting it.
“That’s okay, I’m just tired,” she said, putting the book into her bag and closing her eyes. That’s how she justified brushing him off.
At the fourth stop, she got up and nodded an uncomfortable good-bye. From the distance, he followed her, enveloped in a thick cloud of young-woman scent, and was struck with the same dreadful realization that surged forth from time to time from the gloomy shadows of his soul. It hit him. He had missed out on life and what it had to offer. Food, money, the sea, but mostly women. Beautiful and sensitive. Women who smelled good. Women like Nili, who was his when he was a freshman in college, until the frenzied screech of the telephone on Yom Kippur afternoon.
Actually, the memory of her is what had kept him alive: her light, freckled face, the face he recalled during the long days in the tank and the short nights he had sailed off far into the cursed sands of Sinai. But hers was also the face he saw when he stood motionless in front of the flaming tank, his feet firmly planted in the scorched earth on which his forces were being defeated–fearing that she might continue her life with another.
When he returned, he blamed her.
He became enraged when she went out with her friends to parties, or to hang out in cafés, discussing music and morality, or when he was awakened during the night by Shimon’s pleading and could discern compassion in her face, or when she had said he shouldn’t judge people for being happy.
After they broke up, his mother tried to set him up with women from work, and some of his old friends tried as well. But the women, like his friends, quickly disappeared. The violent outbursts he hurled at anyone who touched his back, the cigarette constantly dangling between his fingers, his mental-disability pension that allowed him to remain at home, the deadpan look in his eyes–everyone said it was impossible to live with such a person.
In the gloomy, illuminated Tel Aviv, vibrant and dead, the Tel Aviv in which he whiled away his days wandering down avenues and boulevards, in parks, libraries and cafes, reading newspapers stained with dead flies, he boarded the No. 5 bus. It was packed with foreign workers and students. When they reached the corner of Dizengoff and Arlozorov, an elderly man who reeked of old age and leftover food sat next to him.
He got off at the mall. He went in and flipped through some magazines at a stand. He felt like having some tea and left.
His shadow slid in unison with his bent figure. He smoothed over his Mongolian wool sweater and his impressive shock of white hair that so many young women had run their fingers through long ago, up until the day that Nili looked at him for the last time–the white hair that since the age of 28, when his mother died, only he and a few whores had touched.
When he got home he turned on the television and watched the news. He cupped his hands around his mug of tea. He hadn’t had a cigarette for three months and the hunger for one gnawed at him mercilessly. He wondered why he abstained from one of his few pleasures. What is this life, anyway? Why does he watch his health just to prolong it? A huge cloud of emptiness hovered over him and carried him to familiar depths of gloom, where lonely, aging, unshaven men trudged. Once again, with the image of the TV anchorman in the background, he was brought back to those dreadful nights in which he would awaken from screams and guilt, revisiting the days he used to smoke and not eat a thing, recalling Uri’s severed limb, the charred lump that was once Shimon–his good friend from boot camp–his mother’s death, then his father’s, whose faces trembled when they saw him return from the war. The cowardice. Shuka’s expressionless face, the face of a mannequin, burnt unrecognizably, remained a scar on his own face as well, a reminder of his own incompetence, of the paralysis that overtook him, of the instinct to save, first of all, and actually only, himself.
The first few months after the war there was silence. Only after it was over and everyone went back to Haifa, to the kibbutzim and to Tel Aviv–dead, or with lifeless eyes, the news broadcasting other things–did the signal operator and the driver meet after rehab. “How about my face?” Shuka asked in a changed voice. Yoram lowered his eyes. Overcome with shame, he visited the small apartment in the center of Herzlya a few more times, making an effort to assuage that feeling somewhat. Shuka’s wife always greeted him and served Turkish burekas and cognac, while Micha–the son who had recited the kaddish in a strong, loud voice, as though in his line of duty as the eldest–played with the keys that guests had given him along with some toy cars.
During those meetings he was amazed to discover that Shuka had not held a grudge. On the contrary. The courageous tank driver always told his wife and his friends who came to visit about what he called “Yoram’s outstanding conduct” in battle. But the slight grin that cracked Shuka’s burnt face–a judging, disdainful grin–had poisoned Yoram’s soul, so that one winter day he left the apartment on Rabbi Kook Street and decided that he would never return to that place filled with people and warm pastries and heroic tales.
Why could the man who was buried today run into the inferno and rescue what had been left of Uri and Shimon’s charred bodies? How could he have sacrificed his beautiful face and tanned arms, and why was it that he, Yoram, the one left with smooth, white, shrunken skin and a fine chiseled face that had withered, dulled and sunken over the years–and who was now getting up to buy a pack of cigarettes–why couldn’t he do anything?
On the way to the kiosk he ran his fingers through his thick hair, the only thing that hadn’t turned ugly, and decided that it was time to have his hair cut. Just then what Shuka’s wife had told him sank in: “Four sons. You met Micha when he was only a baby. He was born before the war. Then came Uri, Shimmy and Yoramie.”
A wave of horror came over him as he paid for the cigarettes and matches. The cigarette quivered in his mouth while he fumbled with the matches. Finally he managed to light it.
Exhaling through his nostrils, he looked at the cashier’s face, which reminded him of Shimon when he was released from the army. Same eyes, same beard. “Stores weren’t always open at these hours, you know,” he explained. The young man behind the counter nodded and went back to reading the paper. “A good business stays open even at night. People eat, drink and smoke at night, too,” he continued.
Two young women of about 25 came in and asked for Kent Super-Lights. They smelled of sweat and perfume. “Light, shmight. Every day they come up with something new,” he proposed, longing for a smile, or possibly a real response.
They took no notice. The salesperson flashed him a loathing, impatient glance.
The chill in the air wove threads of loneliness under his Mongolian woolen sweater that he had bought in the Ramla market a few years back. Tomorrow he would celebrate his birthday and enter the decade in which people start getting up early and talking to strangers in the street, like the lady who offered him a pill for his cough. As he was passing by two young people–one saying, “Marcuse says…”–he thought about studying something at the university, 34 years after the war had prevented him from finishing his degree.
After wandering the dark streets, where new buildings sprang up opposite the old and dilapidated, he went back to his timeworn apartment with the acrid smell of leftovers in the sink.
He opened the window in the living room and looked at the pack of cigarettes, half of which he had already smoked. He smoked another then threw it out the window as he noticed a flash of lightning. A violent downpour began slapping down on the trees, the rooftops, the streets and the heads of the few people still outside.
He walked toward the small bedroom. Going back to study seemed ludicrous now. He sighed.
He undressed in the dark and crawled into bed. It was full of crumbs. Under the woolen blanket he lit another cigarette and thought that the following day he would have his coffee at the Cremieux. His feet were cold and he rubbed them on the mattress on which he had slept alone for decades. In complete darkness, where only a tiny tip of fire could be seen every few moments, he coughed. Outside, as if in response, the sky rumbled. He crushed out the cigarette. The clamor of the rain whipping down on the leaves and the smell of cigarettes triggered a pleasant feeling in his thighs. Near midnight, he fell asleep.
Shay Aspril is an Israeli writer. Sons of Shuka is taken from “Winter Is Here”, a collection of short stories, recently published in Israel (Hakibutz Hameuchad Publication House). The book is the winner of the Ramat-Gan Literary Prize in the category of best debut book for 2013. Aspril resides in Tel Aviv. The story was translated from Hebrew by Ruth Almog.