ISSN 2359-4101

Brazilian Literature in Translation / Literatura Brasileña en Traducción

Issue / Numero

year/año: 2012
issue/numero: # 05



Judith in The Future Land


Author | Autor: Adriana Armony


Translated by Christine Lopes

Rio de Janeiro, 1984

It was not just the outline of the face that blurred gradually, or the memories that
turned thin by the day – it was the quality of the air itself, of the nights coming
in through the window. When had everything begun? At what moment had
everything become so vague that it could only end up like that?
In that cloudy afternoon in May, she propped herself up from the sofa made
of fake leather, and went to make some tea. The varicose veins burst into purple
flowers just below the knees, when the wind blew in through the window, opened
the dressing gown with a chinese Dragon print on it, and she felt a cold that seemed
to come from out of this world. When she was given the present by her daughterin-
law, her older daughter asked You are not going to wear this, mum, are you? She
answered, giggling Why not, darling? And the daughter, feeling upset, It just doesn’t
suit you, mum. She said nothing; and there set in between them a silence as heavy
as the paw of an animal. With a single step, she filled in the cubicle that comprised
all the basic functions of a kitchen, and fished out an old dented kettle from inside
the cupboard. The flame from the hob sparked under the worst damaged surface
of the kettle, and for a moment she saw on the flat and silverlike mirror a worn out
face, made of thin lips, a girl’s puzzled eyes: her own face. I cannot stay any longer
in this house, she thought vaguely, as if the thought belonged to somebody else.
The legs hurt a bit, it was probably time for the medicine. Deborah, the medicine,
she was about to say; but then remembered that her daugther had gone to the
hills of Teresopolis with the children, not without first making her promise that she
would stay well. “Behave yourself, alright? I am back on Sunday afternoon”. O G’d,
forgetfulness had at last arrived; the obliviousness, the lapses of memory, all of these
things that made the youngsters laugh behind the back of the elderly, now treated
like children; her turn had arrived.
The water bubbled away in laughter, when she grabbed the kettle firmly and
poured the water into the only china cup left from her trousseau. The hot steam
puffed out at her face, and the sensation of blushes that invaded her made her
remember…what? There was a memory here, certainly, a definite form that vanished
like a smell as she tried to capture it. And yet there is nothing more precise, more
singular than a smell. She dipped the tea bag into the water and remembered the
sugar – two little cubes that she reached for, and got out of a white-and-blue box,
from the store-cupboard at the end of the hallway. It was an amusing hallway, too
long for a kitchenette, although it was bigger than usual for this type of flat. The
grandchildren loved those cubes of sparkling whiteness, and cried out to suck them
straight out of the box, fighting for the little stones.
On the Saturdays when her daughter visited her, the children would flee to
the entrance hall of the building with their mouths bulging with three or four sugar
stones, a sticky trail left all over the shirts and the red carpet fitted onto the marble
staircase. The ground-floor flat was small, but in the entrance hall the children could
spread themselves around. The steps of the staircase were then transformed into
circles of heaven or hell; the two ramps running alongside the staircase were slides
leading to clouds or flames, and a screw that fixed the red carpet to the marble
became a magic button that could trigger rivers of water, or fudge – the children
jumped up and down, roared, with the typical selfishness of 7 or 8 year-olds. When
all the screaming and shouting became too much, an adult would stick their neck
out of the door and urge in a quiet voice, shhh, the neighbour next door is ill. One
could tell from the heavy, indifferent weight made of old flesh and silence behind the
door. Obliging, the children would jump and move their lips in a crazy mimic, only to
forget the sick old lady and go back to all the screaming and shouting, until another
head invariably sneaked out of the door and shushed them again.
She carefully put the used tea bag away in the fridge, on a saucer that was
slightly chipped on the rim. Her grandchildren. Her family. How strange to bear a
life. She was the sick old lady now. One morning she woke up and everything was
done. The son who had a wife as well as a mistress, and who feared his own daughter
as much as he loved her. The other son, a political activist who had become an
advertising executive and had children for whom the television was more real than
their own parents. The ultra-efficient daughter, who had had a quarrel with her older
brother, whom she could now only tolerate at the indispensable family gatherings.
The self-confident granddaughter, who had so quickly forgotten the days when
she would come for ice-cream after the ballet lessons, who used to make endless
requests to have her hair stroked, lying down on the sofa, head resting on her lap,
in front of the television, watching Jerry Lewis films together. So many people had
revolved around her, and now she fitted alone in that kitchnette.
Would it be possible that she had become a nuisance? She, who had fled a war,
who had brought up her children all by herself, through the inexorable hardening
that fear produces, now looked at the branches that grew out of this trunk as if they
had branched out from some other tree, like flowers from an unknown world.
She heard the whistle of the knife-sharpener man on the street play a football
anthem. The scream of children coming out of school came into the room with a
gust of wind. Lying down on the sofa in front of the television, she told herself it
would be just a short nap before going to bed – early, as the elderly do. She was
nearly 80, the legs weighed her down and she suffered from high blood pressure.
You should rest more, mum, instead of going window-shopping – she could hear
her daughter telling her off, as if a naughty child, as the sounds and images from
the television began to muddle up – Come here, let me have a look at these
varicose veins…
Gradually, everything fused into a white mass of indistinct sounds, which she
entered hesitantly. Now there she was, Judith, and from afar in the desert she saw
a camel appear. It moves slowly under the sun, and it brings in its mouth something
that she cannot distinguish, but which seems to be hair, a thread of long ginger
hair that contrasts with the glimmering white sand. The camel has a wise look, as
if it has been around since the beginnings of time. Suddenly a man with a black
beard appears, eyes red-inflamed, and using a kitchen knife he cuts the throat of the
animal. Before dying, the camel says, out of breath, “The good man does not have
form”, but this last word is overshadowed by the horrific laughter of the assassin,
who gesticulates like Zorro, swaying for an imaginary television camera.
She is brought out of sleep like a tree that has been uprooted. She tries to
disguise for herself the horror that she felt – and this was one of her main techniques
– by humming an old Jewish melody that she used to teach to her students, at the
time when she was the amazing Morah Judith. How many times, going out for a walk
around the square, or in some hotel in the countryside, she had heard a voice reach
her like an arrow of pleasure: “Morah Judith!” Ah, who would forget the gentle but firm
teacher, who once pulled them all out of their seats and took them onto the glorious
stage? She had come up with the idea of putting on a production at school telling the
story of the flight of the Jews from Egypt, and the former student, now a grown-up
family man, a father, had played the part of Moses. And that at a time – and here the
man rested his hand on the shoulder of his distracted daughter –, that at very different
times, when everyone had to sit tight and quiet, learning everything by heart…
Morah Judith had forgotten the medicine. She stretches herself out in order to
reach the small container on the bedside table, a move that sends waves of loose
flesh to the large area of white skin hanging from her upper arm. What was it that
her daughter used to say? “I have to give the “tchau” muscle a hard work out. When
I move my arm, everything drops.” That was all that Deborah could think of these
days: “working out” to keep her man. She herself had lost her own man 50 years
ago, and never married again.
The medicine was not on the little table. Instead of looking for it somewhere
else, she went to the drink cupboard, opened it with a key that she kept in her
pocket, and brought out of there a shoe box lined with wrapping paper. She looked
at the faded photographs, one by one.
And suddenly, still propped on her elbow, she felt a hot flush fill up her womb
with a thick and sticky liquid. She opened her legs slowly, and saw a trail of blood
running down her white, flabby skin.
The inexorable had come, and yet she felt surprisingly calm. She looked at the
clock, which displayed its indifference from the wall. Surely, she still had some time
left. As she closed her eyes, she had the feeling of falling slowly into a well. Hanging
from the dark walls, old photographs of landscapes and faces are lit by a flickery
and unreal flame and gone by before her eyes while she falls, before she can tell
who they are. And then she reaches the bottom. She feels her limbs soften, and the
sleep embrace her like an old lover.
(…)





11

The day would come when the Jews would have their own country; the day
when there would no longer be humiliation, when a new race would flourish,
straight and strong, sprung from the stone and the desert. The long centuries of
exile were now coming to an end: this was now the redeeming power of the will
and the words writing new history. They were going to the new land to build it,
but also to be built by it.
Dr Klausner’s words made her dizzy, mingling themselves with the waves and
the stars that pierced the pitch black of the night. Never had the sky looked to her
so infinite as now, when, standing on the prow of that freight ship, the Ruslan, she
recalled his words; never had the air felt so pure.
And what had he said of the female pioneers? Women who were prepared
to work themselves away in sacrifice, who had cleared fields covered in stones,
taken part in harvests, built roads and houses, guarded villages side by side with
men. Women who were clever and bold, who would give anything for their land, as
mothers do for their children.
So had Dr Klausner spoken; or at least these were the words she could recall.
Standing ever so straight, goatee up, he had gazed back at the crowd that applauded
him. Shedding tears of envy, those who had come to say their farewell promised
that they too would soon make their journey back to Eretz Israel, while the young
ones, who were going on board, sang and danced.
Together with the survivors of several pogroms, together with the prisoners
and “personalities of standing”, as her father would say, there they were after a long
exile, the returning refugees from Eretz Israel; but the truth was that the land they
were now returning to had also been in the past, in a way, an exiled land itself. While
they lived there, they were like the waning moon; and now that the new moon had
passed, they were destined to fulfil their end, to grow and glow as the full moon now
hangs like an earring in the middle of the sky.
It was not easy at the time to find a ship that would be prepared to sail to Israel.
The seas were still full of mines and the danger was ever so great, especially for a
Russian ship, whose captain and sailors were sure to be suspected of treachery and
Bolshevism. At last, the Refugees Committee managed a ship not too large, very
old, not at all confortable, which would later become the legendary Ruslan.
There were on board 630 people of all sorts and different backgrounds, from
the Jews of Tzfat to the youth of Odessa. A Board Committee was created, whose
president was Dr Klausner, and also a Supplies Committee, whose role was to make
sure that even the poorest among the poor ones had kosher food, and that no one
reached the Holy Land in starvation or sick.
Only the intellectual ones, like Dr Klausner himself, were lodged in cabins; the
refugees and pioneers were placed in the cargo depot. The journey was a long one.
The captain went off the route in order to trade some grains with the free markets of
Greece. The local authorities were suspicious, and would not allow the passengers to
disembark or to obtain supplies of fresh food. What an irony: they, who were Zionists
fleeing the Bolshevists, were now themselves suspected of being Bolshevists!
At all ports they stopped, they were first kept in quarantine; only after they had
their belongings disinfected could they moor. In Constantinople, after three days in
quarantine, they were whisked off to the city to be showered: they had their clothes
taken off, away for disinfection, and then brought back. Although men and women
had been separated, Judith felt painfully ashamed: she had never been naked in
front of other people.
Still, nothing could diminish the joy of the youths in that ship. It was not
unusual for one of them to wake up in the middle of the night, and shout. “Get up!
We are going to Eretz Israel, we must sing and dance!” And the party would start,
a party that Judith had not seen before. Young women and men touched each
other, the sweat run down their faces, mixed with the smell that came from the sea,
and filled the air with a salty taste. Laughs burst out at the pace of rhythmic steps,
and it did not matter that the food was wanting, that the floor was unconfortable,
or that they managed to save little or nothing of their belongings. As it happened,
they wanted to leave the burden of the past behind themselves, this heavy load
that weighed their shoulders down and made their legs tremble – who cared now!
They moved their stiff bodies forward, spun in craze, clapped, threw themselves
off like darts towards the sky.
And what could there be, beyond that sky? The infinite, the ein-sof, Judith
repeated to herself, tasting in silence the mysterious word that she had once read
in the Zohar. The very same infinite from which the world sprung once, and back to
which the dead returned. It was probably where she was before being born; and
yet her mother, her father, her grandparents, the houses of stone of Tzfat, everything
already existed before her; everything was there, and suddenly she came into time
to live, and die, and everything would disappear after all… But, no, in the same way
that everything was already there before her, and without this she would not have
found the world, things would continue to exist, while, as for herself…she would
return to where she was before being born…
There was an old lady on board who had lost all members of her family in the
pogrom, including one of her grandsons. Every other day the woman would throw
some item of clothing to the sea, saying “There it is, my little one, you must feel cold,
need to put something on, shoes…” Shirt and boots swirled up in the air for a few
moments, and splashed into the freezing cold water, raising tiny little drops of water
that would disappear into the sky-blue. Where was that grandson now? Could he
be in the same place where her mother was? It was not enough to say “the infinite”;
it was necessary to imagine it too. It was important that it was not a distant and
sad place deep down into the cold vastness of the sea. And suddenly her stomach
twitched, and the sky too seemed to shrink, for she now had, in front of her, Dr
Klausner’s long thin face, him indeed, in flesh and bones, and blood too. Indeed, his
face looked red as if he had just covered several flights of stairs in one single breath.
- I beg your pardon, young lady, may I ask something? Have I not seen you
before?
- Certainly, Dr Klausner. It was in Odessa, at the house of some of my relatives,
where you and your wife often went. I lived there for a while, and then went to work
at another house.
- So you remember me too!
Judith answered at once.
- I could never forget. Sir, you are a personality of standing, everyone knows
it. And how beautifully you spoke before our departure! I am originally from Eretz
Israel, and I too want to build this new country. – She felt proud of herself, when she
noticed she was speaking like an adult, like a true pioneer.
- Thank you, but the beauty did not come from my words, it came rather from
the truth itself. It came from our hope.
And there was Judith, a girl, a third class passenger, talking to that great man.
Her father would never believe it; she herself could hardly believe it. Dr Klausner
asked which town she was from, and whether she always spoke in Hebrew. Indeed,
Hebrew was her mother tongue, although she also knew Yiddish. Yiddish, he said,
was the language of exile, a patchwork made of the sufferings of the diaspora. They
needed the purity of Hebrew in order to mould the new people out of the original
language of the Jews, and bridge the gap between the biblical era and the present
time. Judith never looked so beautiful. The wind was messing up her hair, but she
did not mind; she only had to clear her face of a few annoying strands that prevented
her from taking in every bit of Dr Klausner’s face and words. He asked why Judith
had left the house of her relatives, and she told him that a cousin had bullied her,
and that, in the end, life in the other house turned out to be much better, for she had
learnt mathematics and to play the piano. “So, the young lady likes mathematics?”
Judith now seemed to have swallowed a radio, for she could not bring herself to
stop talking, which was actually something that made her feel very embarassed
later on, when at bedtime she recalled the conversation. And she said that she
thought mathematics was very useful, since it helped describe the movement of
the stars, and it could perhaps also explain other things, and perhaps it would even
help build the future State of Israel…. Out of her face, in the darkness, there seemed
to come sparks, as if her face was a mirror that at once reflected and deflected the
concentrated look with which Dr Klausner stared at her.
(…)





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