Translated by: Margalit Rodgers
I had misgivings about telling him an ordinary story like the hundreds of books his mother bought him at Ikea Books. I wanted to impress him in his time of difficulty. I didn’t know she wouldn’t forgive me. I didn’t think for a moment that she would throw me out. And for what? For inventing a story? Because the boy got a bit scared for the first time in his life? Because he ate one square of chocolate? I really did want to be there for him in his time of difficulty. And when he was dying she didn’t even let me visit him at the hospital, until he breathed his last, that poor, sweet, innocent boy who was cursed by God for no good reason. He wasn’t my son; he was hers from a previous marriage. I fought and argued with her repeatedly, until I realized she was serious and there was no going back. Even now I’m still filled with torment that she didn’t let me continue being a “Daddy”. And on the one hand I’m trying to be less childish and naïve, and on the other I’m thinking of finding a different kind of woman for myself. But was it actually me who found her? Didn’t it simply find us? Oof.
‘Are you awake?’
‘Are you awake?’
‘Stop it, I asked first.’
‘Stop it, I asked first.’
‘Daddy, stop it.’
‘Are you awake?’
‘Yes, Yehuda, my darling, sweet apple pie.’
‘I want a story.’
‘No, lots-‘n-lots of stories.’
‘One story, okay?’ I asked, and Yehuda didn’t respond. I waited a few moments, nodded in agreement, and tightened my grip on his small hands.
‘Yay,’ he said happily.
‘I’m going to tell you a story about a guy who was hungry and went to different towers to scavenge for food.’ I altered my voice: ‘Hear ye all you creatures of the underworld, open up your imagination to great and mighty things, to monsters and a world of war, to insanity, craziness, wildness, and to great confusion.
‘Once upon a time there was a world without top and bottom. A world that only has ground, and there are those who live under it. Maybe that’s a good reason to tell you how I once managed to go up almost as high as the sky. Actually, I climbed to the top of the tallest tree in the neighborhood and prayed I wouldn’t meet the others there, but still they came. No one knows how the towers burnt down, and who felled the trees. They say there was a great war, that terrible bombs destroyed everything. The earth was flattened. Anyone who knows what really happened kept silent or was silenced, and perhaps my memory too will soon fall silent. But I swear the land was different. It created creatures that reached the sky and touched the heavens.
‘I didn’t want to kill or be killed, I didn’t want to invade or wallow in radiopassive dust. All I wanted was to eat and drink and get through the barriers of the longest night. In the Ajami neighborhood I disguised myself as a branch, or more precisely a tree panther that leaps from tree to tree. I knew no one expected a hungry human shadow to climb fifty-seven stories up a sequoia-ficus clone. Suppleness swelled in my exhausted muscles. I chose the fifty-seventh story that I thought looked like a considerable source of purified food. I was afraid to climb alone. I didn’t know if other animals thought like me. Like the animals cloned into a human body and Type 6 android robots known as “The Proteins”, I scavenged for food to survive. But at night each of us developed a different method of identifying the radiopassive disease, and diverse techniques were formulated in efforts to circumvent it. Some say entire species were wiped out, yet others survived.’
‘Daddy, what’s an androd?’ he asked.
‘It’s a robot like the Transformers,’ I replied, and checked to see if his eyes were starting to close. Although they looked closed, he was wide awake, which I attributed to the steroids he was taking. Because at this time of night he was usually fast asleep. I made a mental note to talk to his mother, maybe the cortisone should be substituted for something else so he could get some rest.
‘You couldn’t miss the skyscraper in Ajami. It rose several thousand stories high. Its crystal plating gave it a diamond-like hue, and at certain moments the rays of the sun came together into a blazing beam that fell on the sidewalk and consumed anyone who wasn’t careful. Although the heat was utilized as this cool, free solar energy for the residents, many of them never returned to their homes. Many of them died from the effects of the disease, others migrated in search of more satiating opportunities. And some were murdered during the looting that occurred between the numerous riots. I chose an apartment into which I’d leap through the branches of the tree. It was the pumpkin-colored parquet floor I could see in the various rooms beyond the huge crystal window that drew me in. I took the five silvery stones out of my pocket and started tossing them at the window until one of them cracked it. I waited on the branch for a little while until the radiopassive bacteria cleared out. I used a sharpened stick made from a serrated tree branch as a knife to get through the window and clear away the glass panes that had remained intact. I looked at the walls of the towers surrounding me. Sometimes the roots of the trees dislodged the tower foundations and brought them crashing down. A few trees huddled in a circle that didn’t manage to surround the stone and steel towers. No one knew who had planted the seeds of the huge trees, but it was clearly evident that their growth excitingly resisted the power of technological progress. I heard one rumor that it was no coincidence the trees came to the city of the great plague, that subversive elements had had a hand in the mess.
‘That’s enough, I’m stopping the story now.’
‘But you’re falling asleep.’
‘I’ll sit up.’
‘I’ll tell you the rest in the morning.’
‘No,’ he said, wiping his eyes.
‘Are you crying?’
The tiredness brought him close to the verge of tears, so I held his hand really tight until he told me I was squashing it.
‘I got stuck in the living room on the sick carpet with the picture of the clown that didn’t quite cover the entire parquet floor. Using my tentacles I searched for a way to cross six floor boards to the opening that would take me down to the presidential sewer. Every step made the room change and enabled those radiopassive insects to eagerly suffocate the pores of my skin. The burning feeling is indescribable. I was standing in the flames of a bio-plague incinerator. The bacteria burned me inside and out. Every movement on the clownish carpet was accompanied by a series of small explosions inside the walls. The minute explosions scattered even more radiopassive dust in the air. I heard the delicate echoes spreading in a slow and gentle shockwave. The parquet floorboards split. I was afraid to move. I didn’t know the radiopassive plague had reached so far up. It was a planned mechanism to prevent intruders from stealing, robbing, looting, and maybe even murdering the residents of the tower. I should have thought of it. I didn’t want to test it on animals: for instance, tossing a color-changing panther cub into the apartment and testing its survival in the new conditions. At the same time, the burning raging throughout my body, especially my legs, taught me that something in the way I moved had to change. If I don’t change my modes of action, I won’t survive.
‘Earlier that day I’d explored the possibility of leaping to a different tower, at 125 Herzl Street, but the building seemed to be dancing, as if in an earthquake. I didn’t know if my eyes trembled too much due to deficient nutrition. And I didn’t have any more time to waste on superfluous musings. The darkness was about to dissipate. My tentacles wouldn’t be able endure the light of the sun and identify the radiopassive dust that clung to the various foods.’
‘Daddy, I want some water.’
‘I’ll fetch you some at the end of the story.’
‘No. I want some now.’
‘You’re not going to get everything you want.’
His face began collapsing into a complex system of distortions, and I was angry with myself for being a wiseass.
‘Alright, alright, I’ll fetch you some water, just don’t cry.’
Yehuda wiped away his tears, but I could see his face was ready for another round of crying. I fetched a glass of water, and he danced on the bed.
‘Daddy, Herzl, is he the one with the long beard?’
‘Where do you know him from?’ I replied with a question.
‘Mom told me and showed me a picture once in a book.’
‘Yes, but he didn’t live far from them, from where your parents used to live.’ He wasn’t interested in my answer.
‘I had crossed through the door and hungrily invaded someone else’s home. And my stomach walked me straight into a trap I wasn’t familiar with. I breathed cautiously on the carpet. Strangely, the clown’s face had faded somewhat, perhaps due to the encounter with the three suns. Ludicrous. Who had thought of creating a clown in a world devoid of clowns? And yet the word “clown” had endured. I’d never seen a circus come to the diseased and dying city.’
‘Circus, circusy, circusy, sweetie.’ He squealed the words joyfully, making the word sound childish and sweet.
‘Sweetie circusy,’ I replied sadly.
‘The carpet was dirty and smelled foul. A persistent pain ravaged my body, but my legs refused to move. I was surrounded by the splintered parquet floorboards that jutted up around the edges of the circusy mat like petals. They completed the strange flowery texture of the strange home. I was suddenly struck by the insight that perhaps it was the room itself that had drawn me in, like a flower draws insects to its pollen-dusted stamens. The pumpkin color of the parquet floor was designed to trap tiny insects like myself to feed the building. Maybe the colossal skyscraper breathed. I quickly banished the bizarre and esoteric thought. But the doubts returned. Perhaps that was why I had seen the other building at 125 Herzl Street moving in a dance.’
‘Daddy,’ he stood up.
‘Just a minute.’
‘Daddy,’ he jumped hard on the bed.
‘Just a minute.’ I tried to force him to sit down.
His face twisted into crying mode again.
‘What’s the matter, Yehuda, sweet apple pie?’
‘What’s the matter?’ There was no way he was going to answer me. I went to the kitchen and brought him some chocolate from the forbidden cupboard. One square wouldn’t do any harm. For anything magical holds a little poison, and every poison holds a lot of magic.
‘Come, whisper into my ear… tell me and I’ll listen like you’ve never been listened to before,’ I begged for dear life, one of the tricks I’d learned from his mother.
‘Daddy, you… you… you said Herzl…’ he said simply and calmed down. To my surprise he asked me to go on, but first I wiped away all traces of the chocolate.
‘A quick conclusion formed in me whereby the towers had transformed into mutations that consumed human bodies in order to create energy (I didn’t know who or what for). This haunting thought that went round and round in my mind didn’t contain an enemy. In the war story I told myself people were the victims, not the victimizers. It was a mighty battle between the two great powers: on one side the synthetic mutations of the giant trees, and on the other the ruthless mechanisms of the ravenous skyscrapers.’
‘What are muvations?’
‘Mutations are like the Ninja Turtles.’
‘This conflicting narrative possessed a certain logic, because the number of giant trees had shrunk and the towers had spread. Like many others, I’d given up and believed in the change brought about by the giant trees with their rare fruit that could feed an entire neighborhood. The burning focused my actions: How the hell could I get out of here?
‘I was in so much pain I couldn’t remember how I’d entered the place where I was standing. I couldn’t make any hasty movements without first giving them some thought. One wrong move on the silly clownish carpet, and additional quantities of radiopassive dust would be released to imprison me in a deadly burning torment. But if I stayed in the same spot I would burn up completely. And time was running out. But still, numerous questions bubbled up inside me: Why had I listened to the juices searing my stomach? Why hadn’t I made do with sucking on blood-swallowing mosquitoes? Why had I jumped from the window right onto the edge of the mined carpet over the orange parquet floor? Who had come up with such a twisted and out-of-proportion design? How could anyone even imagine such an ugly and appealing color as that of a pumpkin? I almost swallowed my breaths. My limbs were beginning to collapse. The white cells in my blood had long since stopped their war against invaders and defected to the enemy. I passed a hand over my hair and was astounded and disgusted to discover that it had fallen out.’
‘Daddy, that’s really scary.’
‘Alright then, we’ll open the window and let in some light… will that be less scary?’ He didn’t reply, but pointed to my lips and hugged me. My heart broke inside me.
‘The only way out was through the skyscraper’s sewage pipes. Every apartment in this tower had a special tubular opening, a kind of huge shit-slide that went down to the rivers flowing into the landfill. My only hope was to find it and escape from the effects of the virus that was running riot in the roots of my brain and spreading to the long bladed claws on my short legs. I looked around. My octopus-like tentacles came down from my head and searched for the marking of the sewage pipe. I found it easily. It sparkled at the entrance to the apartment, just before the front door. But the contaminated carpet made it impossible for me to move. I was stuck on it. I cursed and swore, but the obscenities did not bring me salvation.’
‘Wait, wait, wait, I know what an optacus is.’
‘What’s an octopus?’
‘Uhm… I don’t remember.’
‘Well, if you remember, tell me. Wait, come close to me, I have to wipe the chocolate off your mouth.’
‘I have to clean it off,’ I wiped his face against his will. ‘Good, and don’t you dare tell your mother you got a whole row of chocolate.’
This story was first published in Remnants of the Cursed Book by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir, edited by Prof. Yigal Schwartz and Tamar Biali