Those Who Go About the City
Behind him in line, a man talks to his wife in French. A monologue, really. She is pretty, blond, petite. Leon wants to hear her voice, but the cashier girl interrupts him. “Your payment, sir?”
Ron is quiet when he hears. Leon knows that when his son hangs up the phone he will turn around and open a prayer book. Is there such a thing, a prayer for a missing person?
“I…don’t know, Papa. I’m sure there’s something. There’s always, you know, Psalms. I’ll ask the Rav.”
Of course he’ll ask the rabbi. When did he not? About every little detail; if a packet of cheese touching a meat pot renders the pot unusable, if a branch can be moved on the Sabbath, if the Grace After Meals can be read an hour after having eaten. Leon remembers the violent arguments they had had when the boy was in high school, newly introduced to religious youth groups. He’s becoming totally irrational, an Orthodox fanatic, he’d say between clenched teeth over dinner to Anya.
Perhaps time had softened the father. Once Ron entered the army, Leon stopped caring—it was enough to have him come home on leave, to see his smile add some life to the quiet apartment, that he would leave the matter aside. Anya had pretended that she had no problem with it. Of course she would cook only kosher food for the boy, allow him to leave for every Sabbath to spend at the young local rabbi’s house that teemed with books, children and guests. Though sometimes he’d catch the disappointed looks on her face when she saw Ron reciting prayers, swaying like the trees of Jerusalem. It was a look that one would have when finding a stranger in one’s dining room, eating off one’s china. Tell me, Ron. What’s with this swaying while you pray? The boy had looked up and explained that a Jew should never sit still.
On the phone, Ron’s voice is barely a whisper. “I don’t understand. She left behind notes? In books?”
Leon tries to explain. “Yes, and one leads to another, and they’re all references to each other, literary citations, really…”
Ron sounds lost on the other line. Leon forgets that he speaks with his soldier son; he only sees the peaceful infant held in his tired mother’s arms in a sterile Soviet hospital. Or the dreamy bright child in short brown trousers, waving sadly to his mother as she leaves him in a first-grade classroom that is plastered with block foreign letters and that speaks no Russian. And then, 13-year-old Ron, pale and thin, the weeks of utter grief after his soccer teammate Gil dies in a bus bombing, and the books of Maimonidean philosophy and Kabbalah that begin to pile up in the boy’s room.
Only now, as he stands in his dark living room, phone against his ear, does Leon suddenly see Anya in Ron. The same faraway eyes, the same enchantment with words. Words of different languages and eras, but words nonetheless.
“Do they give you any clues, as to where she could be?”
Leon shakes his head, and then realizes that Ron can’t see him. “No,” he answers. “If they did, I would have showed them to the police. But they didn’t.” Even if they did have clues, he knows that really he wouldn’t have shown them. It would be like publishing her love letters.
“I loved The Little Prince as a child and then as an adult. My mother used to read it to me and cry. Saint-Exupery was a brilliant man who should never have flown airplanes. ‘What makes the desert beautiful is that it hides, somewhere, a well.’ Does it hide a well, this desert of a Promised Land? A land promised to be dry. The ancients may have found inspiration here. David his Psalms, Solomon his Song of Songs. Agnon his stories, Bialik his poetry. But I haven’t.”
The Alice in Wonderland that he holds is leather-bound. A picture: She sits with the window curtains drawn and the mirrors covered. Even after she gets up from shiva, she is eerily quiet after they bury her mother, because along with her in her dry sandy grave are the stories and colors of the north.
When he is walking up the building walkway after an early morning walk, the Shabazi grandmother is outside; pious Chaim Isaakovitch is not. She speaks aloud to Leon, and he wonders how she knows it is him, for her eyes can wander only heavenward.
“If the rabbi comes closer, I will tell him what Raziel has told me.”
Leon is not going to work today, despite his father’s advice to stick to routine. He does not come closer to the old woman, who smells not of old age but of spices.
“Holy rabbi and father, it is for you that Raziel has come to tell me the whereabouts of the Shulamit.”
Religious nonsense. Typical of Sephardic women, he thinks to himself frigidly. He ventures further down the path to the building a few steps more. “The rabbi will not come close to me,” she announces to the empty street of five in the morning. “He is afraid of the blind truth. But I shall tell him anyway that Raziel has come to me and told me the secrets of the silence of Aleph and of the infinite universes held within it. Also he has told me that happiness is found in only pomegranates and clusters of henna. And Raziel came to me again and told me that the Shulamit has disappeared in the cypresses of Jerusalem. At the Tayelet. The Promenade. Raziel himself told me,” she adds, verifying her fantasies.
Leon walks further up the path, dropping his keys on the ground and then quickly snatching them up. She senses his presence and straightens her apron like a schoolgirl. “The Shulamit, of course, is the one whom the Lion of Judah searches for. He arises and roams through the city, in the streets and squares; He seeks the love of His soul, He sought her, but found her not. It is in the Song of Songs.” She breathes deeply. “This is the end of what Raziel has told me.”
He collapses into a chair in the dining room, even though his walk was not very exerting and physically he is full of energy. Perhaps he will review a chemistry journal while he has a cup of tea. He turns on the tea kettle and is reminded of the mornings she’d call to him from bed and ask him to make her chamomile tea. She had never felt well, her nose was always pink and her voice sniffling, as if the climate change had affected her physically.
Did the desert give you a cold? He’d joke, she’d glare back at him.
When the tea kettle whistles, he wonders what differentiates cypresses from other trees. Over tea he cannot concentrate on the chemistry journal; he instead thinks back to last night, and The Little Prince that told him she had turned away from the desert.
When he opens the edition with the sweet drawings (who could forget the boa constrictor that swallowed the elephant? Or the lamb in the cage? Or the flower, waiting on a far-off planet?) he sees that this one she has written in Hebrew. Her handwriting is clean and mechanical, so unlike her Russian cursive. “The beams of our houses are cedars, and our panels are cypresses. I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”
Cypresses. It is almost automatic. Something fierce and animal inside him grabs him and he finds himself driving out onto the main road towards the center of the city. He takes the copy of The Little Prince, and leaves his cell phone on the table at home. To the devil with it.
You are crazy. Just as crazy as the Shabazi grandmother. Ti slishesh, Leon Gregorovich? You hear? You have gone off the roof.
There are few people at the Haas Promenade. Hanukkah has passed, and the January wave of American tourists has yet to come. He parks his car, takes the book he had grabbed off the dining room table, and begins to walk along the sandy park trail. The hills of Jerusalem still take his breath away, just as they did almost 20 years ago when they were young, confused, and dependent on government immigrant welfare. She, too, had been speechless when she saw it– not her usual silence, but one that was full of astonishment. The silence of the Aleph and the infinite universes held within it. He is haunted by the sound of Yemenite-Hebrew and by cypress trees.
That is why he has come. He walks quickly, up the trail, until he reaches the sign: Haas Promenade. The cypresses are thin and tall, solemnly fragile as they guard the city below. He weaves his way in between the trees. Touches each one. Until there is not one that he has not seen and felt. The streets below, just moments ago astir with echoing calls for prayer, are quieted by the breeze—hush, faithful City. The birds, too, are quiet; only the motor of a golf cart is heard. He spins around and sees a park guard, an Ethiopian boy in a khaki uniform, slowly driving by.
“Excuse me,” he runs up to the cart. “Excuse me!”
The boy turns around. “May I help you?”
“Yes,” Leon is next to the cart’s window now. Leon is not embarrassed to ask it. “Have you seen a short woman, brown hair tied in a knot, soft green eyes?”
The park guard is quiet. “I am not sure I know what you mean.”
Leon pulls out a picture, desperate. The three of them at Ron’s drafting ceremony, on Ammunition Hill. He often thinks back to the surge of pride he had felt that day. Imagine! A son in the Israeli army; a futile dream back in the Soyuz. “Have you seen her?” He shakily points to her face, where she is smiling in the Jerusalem sun.
The Ethiopian is surprised and looks almost apologetic. “Yes, sir, I did see her.”
“You did?” “Yes. Strange thing it was. I saw her, and the next moment she was gone. I thought maybe she was hiding behind a tree.”
Leon feels the perspiration through his shirt and jacket. Raziel himself told me. “And was she?”
The boy shakes his head. “I am sorry. I do not know where she went.”
Leon turns around and walks away from the golf cart. He looks down at the book he took, and realizes that he had left The Little Prince behind.
In his hurried frenzy he had grabbed his thick chemistry journal instead.
“The Shulamit. Wordlessly, without logic, she had disappeared. And Raziel came to me again.” Leon walks towards the promenade, and leans against the stone wall. His hands shake for some reason. What comes into a man’s mind in such a moment? Not emotions, nor thoughts. Just small things, like whispers of magic lamps and firebirds, perhaps the scent of pomegranates and raspberries, too.
He thinks about the immense sadness hidden in a woman, like a faithful city tucked away in the petals of a lily, until the chemistry journal he holds in his hands bursts into tears.