Islands of Saltby Avital Gad-Cykman
Dana’s sweaty hand quivered when her mother, Adel, let go of it. The girl squinted at the store owner’s yellowed eyes and wiry mustache and thought he had been named Wolf for a reason. Sometimes when he growled, even his wife, Fania, lowered her head and avoided his eyes.
She couldn’t hear what he was saying, since a Susita car burbled and gurgled outside. Her mother read the shopping list, and he placed the products on the counter and listed their prices on a piece of paper. His black stash of hair rose in a wave and leaned backwards in a sharp triangle reeking of brilliantine.
Adel checked the blue numbers and, as always, found an error. She pointed it out, curling her rose-painted lips.
Dana blushed under Wolf’s woeful smile. He confirmed that her mother was right, (she was always right) and handed her the correct change.
Dana hoped he didn’t hate them. Others didn’t dare look for mistakes, but her mother didn’t care. Both she and Dana’s father often told Dana to hold her head up and fear nothing.
Dana stepped out first. The grocery, the attached fruit store and the round concrete billboard stood at the edge of the dunes, the sand expanding from their backs to the Mediterranean. A black asphalt road separated the white-washed stores and the sand’s dazzling clarity from the neighborhood’s modest houses and their red tiled roofs.
A line of trees bloomed in yellow that spring, bursting from the sand along the road. Among the flowers, the children found green pods of seeds they called “smell-bombs”. Dana loved the bittersweet scent they spread when broken, but she saw Fania’s lips and nostrils swaying in disgust and her eyes becoming dead when kids threw them into the store. Truth was, Fania’s eyes were never quite alive.
When Fania wasn’t folding her arms, her sleeveless dresses exposed her soft forearms, and sometimes, Dana had a glimpse of tattooed numbers marking her flesh.
Dana’s friend, Dudu, had once asked Fania if those constituted her phone number. He had been forbidden to enter the grocery ever since. You couldn’t touch such issues except in a whisper to your friends.
He, Dana and the other children schemed and invented stories, but their mystery could not match the adults’. Their parents refused to tell them about the past, as if the Second World War had not reached its end yet and they were still fleeing, in no condition to look backwards. It seemed as if even one glimpse or one secret could dry and eternalize them like the salt islands in the Dead Sea.
Dana dared not ask again how come her father’s little brother was still missing. When she had last asked him, Shlomo’s warm, lively voice became strange and broken, like the voice of a wounded man in the Westerns. She sensed his vulnerability and feared that something terrible could catch up with him. She didn’t know exactly what. But he wasn’t as strong as she had previously thought.
The first threat appeared as a raw wound running long and wide across Shlomo’s chest, when he came back from the hospital after a work accident at the factory. Dana kept seeing the moist red cut in the hairy skin of his chest even when she closed her eyes. When her mother covered it with a dressing, she could still see it under the gauze.
She went by herself to the grocery, so her mother could take care of her father. To her relief, Wolf wasn’t in.
“Hello, Fania. My mother couldn’t—My father needs—“
“Your father will survive,” Fania said in a hollow tone.
“Half a loaf of bread.”
Fania picked the crustiest, freshest bread and sawed it, then held out the larger half. She was attentive when she set her mind to it.
“Have you seen him?” Dana asked.
Dana frowned, counting her coins. “Here’s the money, Fania.”
Fania smiled and said, “No rain, huh?”
Dana nodded, unsurprised. Fania was known to be “unfocused.” Dana’s gymnastic teacher had once told the children that Fania had gone through a nightmare and hadn’t found her way out of it. The children laughed. But now, Dana wasn’t laughing. She crossed the road and hurried home, running as fast as she could.
She found her mother pacing, almost bumping into the walls, arguing with the people responsible for the accident, although they weren’t there. Adel didn’t have to yell in order to sound angry. She could even intimidate Wolf with a glass-cold voice. Now, her eyes grew red around the leaf-green irises. “And you, you should be more cautious, Shlomo,” she said.
Dana’s father smiled, amused, relaxing into the gray and red tweed armchair. “I’ll be fine. Right, Dana?”
“Yes!” She was always on his side.
But Adel didn’t give up easily. “What would have happened if the machine had fallen on your left side, if your ribs had broken there?” she asked.
Dana froze. It was the heart’s side.
“What would have become of us?” Adel asked, her voice as strained as a guitar string.
Dana wanted her mother to stop running such worries into her head. Her father was the one who took her to the beach, put her on his lap, let her help him water the garden and pick up apples, mangoes and plums. He taught her to dig holes around the trees and fill them with water. He took her out and introduced her to other adults as his heiress. She wasn’t sure what it meant, but it made them chuckle. He told her it was his way to say she was an only child. He said he was lucky to have her, and sometimes added that some poor people, like Wolf and Fania, had no one.
He also made her laugh a lot; he even made her mother laugh, and Adel said he was a clown. “He’s hopeless,” she said with a fond if tired smile.
Shlomo said that Adel was born for a better destiny, but that she took quite well the one he could offer her. He knew that she suffered from the heat and from the rudeness of people, and he heard her say she felt like killing herself when the water company’s man came to disconnect their system supply. Only he and Dana understood that in her furious way, Adel, too, was fragile.
For that and other reasons, Dana always counted the seconds between her parents’ breaths as they slept.
Adel took care of Shlomo when he stayed at home to heal from the wound. He said she was pampering him when she made him chicken soup enriched with noodles and carrots to strengthen him. She had just learned how to make it and was still consulting her lists.
“If you didn’t know how to cook, who cooked for you before you got married?” Dana asked her.
Adel chuckled. “I managed very well.” She had lived by herself after leaving England and settling down in Tel-Aviv. Shlomo said that back then, she had been more beautiful than Greta Garbo and Betty Davis.
“Back then,” Adel repeated with a bitter hint of a smile.
Dana admired her mother’s fleeting beauty and the flavor of her glamorous life in Tel-Aviv, where she had worked at the British embassy and attended concert halls and cocktail parties. Adel’s long taffeta dresses now cluttered her closet, and she had no use for them.
“When I’m a grown-up, I’ll eat corn and pea directly from the food cans when I don’t feel like cooking,” Dana said.
“I don’t think so,” Adel said. The preserved food cans were stored in the kitchen cupboard to ensure the family’s well-being in times of war. You couldn’t touch them.
Almost as soon as Shlomo got well, the army recruited him to the reserve forces.
“I’ll see Father to the bus station, and you’ll go to the grocery,” Adel told Dana.
“I want to go with you,” Dana said, despite the certain heartbreak by the bus.
“You’d better get busy,” Shlomo laughed, unbuttoning the top buttons of his khaki shirt. He liked his belly to have a lot of space to expand.
“I don’t want you to go,” Dana whined, holding her father’s hips. He had told her he wouldn’t die in any war, because it wasn’t worth it, but she was worried. How many times can he get lucky? Since he survived the camps and fled to Israel, he had joined the Hagana, and the Palmach, and had done more army service during the 1948, 1956 and 1967 wars. Now he served as a paramedic for the reserve forces about a month a year.
“I’ll go with you and then you’ll come with me or I’ll forget what I should get at the grocery,” Dana told Adel.
Adel clenched her teeth, seized a piece of paper and noted down:
-Half a loaf of dark bread (there were two types for the week days, the dark and the white, and a chala on Friday.)
“Now, go. Everything’s written here.”
“Come on, Dana, It’ll be easier for you and me,” Shlomo said gently.
Dana was embarrassed to admit she was afraid of Fania and Wolf and also of the new bully, David J. Besides, she remembered how she couldn’t stop sobbing when she bade him farewell the last time. She kissed him, grabbed the list and the plastic basket and left before her eyes watered.
The air stood so still it was hard to breathe. Stray cats lied in the shadow as if they were dead.
She found Wolf leaning on the counter, his gaze following a fly. He sighed, suggesting that she came at the wrong time, but recovered and cracked a thin smile.
She said what she needed without looking at the list squeezed in her hand.
“You’re a big girl, now,” he said, bringing the products.
She put the eggs on top of the bread in the basket. “Yes.”
He stared at her like someone who didn’t know how to speak with children. Dana wondered why he and Fania didn’t have any sons or daughters. Most people had them; the neighborhood was full of kids.
“Send my regards to your mother, a classy lady,” he said.
She left the store, crossed the road and reached the first of the two streets leading to her home when David J. blocked her way.
“I owe you,” he cried.
Dana searched the empty street with a throbbing heart. Children said they owed someone when they wanted to take revenge. She had no idea why David J. always owed her. He had recently moved into the neighborhood, and had already fought her twice. Both times, Yael Laskov, Dudu’s big sister, came out and separated them. Of course, Dana wouldn’t have run away, even if Yael hadn’t shown up. Her teachers, those born in Israel, always questioned the passive attitude of the slaughtered European Jews. They respected the Holocaust Memorial Day, but the mourning was mixed with shame. One had to fight for his life, they lectured.
David J. was bigger than she was and his kicks hurt, but she had found that pinching his thighs drew little screams out of him, and it brought her some comfort.
Now, she put the basket on the ground.
“I owe you,” he said by way of explanation, punching her in the stomach. She gasped for air. Her hand flew to his face, and she slapped him with all of her force. He produced a war cry and leaped at her, but she moved out of his way, noticing that he was yelling again while crouching for a jump, and that his sister’s red tricycle stood on the side. She kicked it, to have his parents punish him, but the tricycle only rolled away.
He was leaping at her when Dudu came running right into him, his head aiming at his belly. David J. collapsed onto the pavement.
“Fight someone your own size,” Dudu said, although he wasn’t any larger than Dana. His hair fell untidily over his eyes.
David J. looked up. “I owe you two,” he said, then crouched, holding his stomach.
Dana picked up the basket. “The butter is melting.”
“He won’t dare owe me,” Dudu said.
She hoped so. Of course, to die fighting was different from dying as a victim, and it seemed like a much better choice. While her father always said, “No war is worth fighting,” he also said, “The other option is even worse.”
Unlike her mother, Shlomo could handle the sight of blood. Dana asked for his aid every time she fell down and scratched or cut herself. She had stumbled into several metal sprinklers in the gardens when rolling in the air above them the way she’d learned at Carmela’s acrobatics course.
On such occasions, Adel held her tightly, yet gave her a slap-like gaze, as if Dana had broken her word to stay safe. Shlomo, the medical orderly, simply joked and passed some yellow cream or iodine, depending on how wide and deep the wound was, then sent Dana out to play.
“Isn’t it dangerous to be a medic in the army?” Dana asked him once, as he treated her knee.
“Don’t worry, I won’t risk myself. I have too much to lose.” He hugged, then released her.
“Stay safe,” Dana said. She loved when the yellow cream appeared through the gauze, like a medal of bravery.
Dana, Dudu and Yael frolicked among the furze bushes that stood as high as the kids were tall, blossoming in white from tiny crimson rings. The children jumped over the lupine flowers, avoiding their pouting white petal-mouths. They weren’t that careful with the savyon flowers that grew wildly, raising small yellow heads all over the place. At times, they stopped to pick “grandfathers,” to blow on their heads and watch the seedy white hair drift away.
“Let’s come here at night to see the night flowers opening with the moonlight,” Yael said.
“At night?” asked Dana. Then she heard her name called from the field’s edge. She turned her head and found her mother standing there in a wine-colored dress. Adel wanted her home, where Dana couldn’t endanger herself. The fields were Dana’s reign. All the Holocaust survivor’s children had to be obedient at home and independent outside it. If it made no sense, nobody noticed. The children were protected, but they had to become self-sufficient. Some of them couldn’t go on school trips because their parents were afraid to lose them, the most important thing in the world. They could run loose on the streets and fields. They had to be home between two and four o’clock. They were a miracle. They were to become what they parents couldn’t turn into because of the Second World War.
Dana skipped toward her mother. “I blew at the hair of seven grandfathers,” she said.
“Your grandfather has no hair to blow,” Adel said smiling.
Dana thought about him, her only living grandfather, and laughed.
They crossed the two-lane road and reached the round billboard near the grocery. Dana’s neck almost snapped as Adel turned her around sharply so she’d stand with her back to the board.
“What—?” Dana blurted out. She tried to sneak a glance behind her shoulder, but Adel held her chin with cool, decisive fingers.
“Is it Carmela’s husband’s death ad?” Dana asked.
Adel’s jaw dropped. She studied her daughter’s face.
“All the acrobatics class knows that her husband died,” Dana explained without much sentiment. Then, she added, “He and Carmela always called each other ‘darling.’”
“Oh, Dana’le, I know!” Adel said. Her eyes became bright with the beginning of tears. Dana found it odd. Her mother was not fond of Carmela and had hardly ever spoken with Carmela’s husband.
Wolf peered at them from his door. “He was too young,” he said.
Adel raised a thin eyebrow and said, “I don’t understand why they have to hang it here. Children shouldn’t learn about such things like that, in public.” She touched her temple with her fingers as she entered the shop. “Six eggs and a can of olives, please.”
Fania watched them from the corner, coiled on a stool.
“Too young. I won’t tolerate it,” she said as if she could determine the right age of people’s death.
Adel gazed at Wolf.
“Calm down,” Wolf told Fania.
“It should have been over,” Fania said.
“What?” Dana asked.
“The war,” Fania said in a pleading tone.
“My father is in the reserve forces now, in the army,” Dana said.
“The war just goes on and on,” said Fania.
“Father has nine...no, ten more days to go,” Dana said, counting with her fingers.
Adel collected the groceries, took Dana’s hand and pulled her out of the grocery. “There is no war,” she told her. “He’s just training.”
They heard Wolf scolding Fania, as they crossed the road.
“How do you think Carmela’s husband looks now?”
“Stop it, Dana.”
“Nobody will call her ‘darling’ anymore,” Dana said, finally feeling as sad as she had hoped to feel.
Shlomo came back home in time for Adel’s birthday. He didn’t rest until Adel and Dana walked out with him for a family parade. The Yemeni neighbor, Ovadia, was sitting on his veranda. His wife, Cochava, was singing inside, and her song mixed with the clacking of pans.
“It’s Adel’s birthday,” Shlomo announced.
“You don’t have to tell everybody, Shleimele,” Adel said, smiling.
Dana smiled to the sound of her father’s nickname.
Ovadia descended the stairs to his yard. His bristly white hair enhanced his brown skin. His family was the darkest in the neighborhood except the adopted boy from Ethiopia on the other street, and was the last to arrive. They didn’t speak Yiddish like Dana’s parents and the great majority of the townspeople.
Russians and the Polish had founded Eilon after the First World War. Long after they had settled down, the Anglo-Saxons filled the town, and a construction company built a neighborhood especially for them. Then, the Holocaust’s survivors arrived in one wave. The accents mixed as the South Africans settled beside the Polish and the Russians and the one Yemenite family.
“Congratulations! How many years have you been around, Adel?” he asked.
“A lady doesn’t reveal her age,” Adel said, her cheeks turning fine pink. She smiled, thin and erect in her well-cut skirt and high-heeled shoes. She hid things like her age, but when only Dana was home with her, she walked naked, as if she had nothing to hide. Her nakedness was white and soft, her only sharp angle set delicately in her chin.
“You don’t look a day older than twenty-one,” Ovadia said.
“You told Fania the same thing,” Adel said, smiling at him.
Dana clapped her hands. “So you’re twenty-one.”
Adel laughed heartily.
Dana observed her, her hands clenching at her chest, against the fluttering.
“Cochava is thirty-seven,” Ovadia said.
“Then I’m twenty-five,” Adel said, now laughing like a lady, the sight and sound of crystal glasses with ice cubes.
“Maybe Fania looks older than Mother because she doesn’t have children,” Dana said at home. She could perfectly hear the silence that followed.
“Women don’t have to reveal all the truth about themselves,” Adel said.
“You look better now than you did at twenty-one,” Shlomo said.
“You wouldn’t know,” she said, her eyes celebrating.
Dana looked at a mirror left in the kitchen, revealing almost all the upper line of her teeth. Her cheeks seemed round like Father’s, not at all like Mother’s. Her eyes were blue with a bit of Mother’s green.
Uncle Pinhas had said that she and her father were as similar as two drops of water. It felt safe and warm, but it opened too much distance between her and Adel, so it also felt like falling out of grace.
While Shlomo was still at home, he and Dana went together to buy potatoes for that Lag Baomer holiday’s bonfire. Everyone they met on the way congratulated Shlomo on his promotion from a labor worker to a department manager.
The dunes behind the stores rose as white as salt.
“You don’t come here often,” Fania chanted at Shlomo.
Dana held his round body, and her hand couldn’t reach the other side of his hips.
“How have you been, Fania?” he asked.
“You know—you know--” she said.
Shlomo’s hip stiffened against Dana’s cheek. She drew back.
“Congratulations on your promotion,” Fania said with the same mourning tone.
“Thank you. Do you have an aluminum foil? And I also need olives and salt.”
Fania picked a roll of aluminum foil from the shelf behind her, saying, “They’ll raise your salary now, so will you have more babies?”
Dana’s eyes widened at the impolite question.
“Dana is my heiress,” he said, smiling but swaying as if a fly were bothering him.
“It’s safer to have another one or two--”
“I want a brother,” Dana said.
Shlomo caressed her head. “She’ll be fine, Fania. We’re taking a good care of her.”
Fania drilled him with a gaze sharper than Wolf’s. “What are you suggesting exactly? Do you mean we didn’t--?”
Shlomo shook his head from side to side. “Here, in our own place, we can,” he said.
“What?” Dana asked.
Fania raised her forearms, the wavy flesh shaking the tattooed numbers. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Mister Shlomo. May this country have only good times. But I’ve already heard there is trouble in the Sinai desert. You think that you can plant some trees and call the place your own, but they are just trees and you are the same man who’d been locked up like an animal. What could I do? Tell me!”
Shlomo almost shouted, “I didn’t mean anything like it, Fania. You know that nobody can judge--” His skin went pale under his dark bristles.
“May I help you?” Fania asked, her body so stiff it could be made of plastic.
Shlomo grabbed the supplies. “I have it all. Thanks. Adel will drop in to pay…” He and Dana rushed home.
“So she had a child—?” Dana started, trying to articulate her confused thoughts.
“Poor woman,” Shlomo breathed. He paused, then added, “You have nothing to worry about. We’ll always take care of you.”
The breeze was playing now with the heart-shaped leaves, producing a relaxing sound, fit for the “schlaf stunde”, the afternoon rest for which the developing Hebrew language could not offer a better word. The whole town rested between two and four o’clock. Adel was waiting for them, already unzipping her dress and preparing for bed.
“I don’t need a rest; I don’t like to lie down in the afternoon, and also, Fania says we can’t rest,” Dana argued.
Shlomo smiled. “We have nothing to run away from and nothing to run away to, Dana’le.”
But Dana, like Fania, hated to lie down next to a wolf in a war that never ended. She counted the seconds between her father’s loud breaths and her mother too quiet ones. Then, One day, after Father got very sick and died, she would remember the great bonfire of that night, the baked potatoes and, mostly, the silences between breaths. And she will get up.