Eitan presumed that his knock had been heard because he made out a woman’s muffled voice and the sound of children’s scurrying feet. But the door did not open; he looked back at his Kona, parked just off the earthen road, in the shade of a eucalyptus tree.
He’d waited long before getting out and, when he did, he staggered in the thick, damp heat. He leaned against the side of the car as desiccated greenish-brown leaves and pieces of dull bark fell softly on the metallic blue finish and on the wisps of white hair he had combed that morning over the barren spot at the top of his head. Perhaps, he thought, the sound of the automobile approaching and then stopping would cause his son to emerge from the trailer, parked here in the middle of a neglected orchard in the Hula Valley. After a long moment he drew a handkerchief from the pockets of his beige cargo shorts and wiped his face. He took a deep breath and walked up to the trailer.
He felt an eye examining him suspiciously through the peephole in the trailer door.
The voice was menacing. “Who are you?”
He mustered his courage.
“I’m looking for Elishama. Am I at the right place?”
The door opened, just a crack.
“He’s out hunting nutrias.”
“For supper. No telling when he’ll be back.”
He waited for her to ask who he was, but she evinced no interest. He heard a little boy’s scream and an older boy’s voice laughing. She glanced quickly back into the trailer and then returned her gaze to him.
He cleared his throat. “Maybe I’ll wait? Could you get me some water? I finished the bottle I had in the car. I didn’t realize it would be so hot.”
She pursed her lips. “Next you’ll be asking to stay for dinner. We barely have enough for ourselves.”
“Nothing to be sorry about. Life’s tough.”
He wiped his face with the handkerchief again. She looked past him at the car, and then up into the sky. She disappeared for a moment and returned with a tiny quarter-liter plastic bottle filled with water and held it out to him. It was warm, almost hot to his touch.
“That’s all I can offer. Don’t expect to get any more.”
“Do you mind if I wait out here for him?”
“Do whatever you want. Just don’t bother me,” she commanded, and closed the door.
There was a tree stump just off to the right. He stiffly lowered himself to sit on it. The water tasted awful, and was soon gone.
“I’m going to kill you, both of you!” he heard the woman screaming at her boys. “Your fucking father will come home and find both of you dead. You deserve it and him too!”
He shuddered. “Don’t even get out of the car,” Yaffa had admonished him. “Just drive by, get a look at the place, and come home.”
“But I want to see him.”
She did her best to control herself. “You want to remember him as the boy you knew. Don’t ruin it by seeing the man he’s become.”
Why doesn’t she let the boys play outside, he wondered. All this open space. Trees to climb and hide behind, birds to follow, soil to dig deep into. He readjusted himself on the stump, trying to get comfortable. His lower back hurt — he needed something to lean against. So he lowered himself onto the ground and put his back against it. But it pricked his back without giving him the support he needed. He carefully lifted himself up again, very slowly, fearful of making a wrong move that would throw his back out, and edged back onto the stump. He wiped his face again and, still holding the handkerchief in his hand, placed his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands.
Yaffa still hurt from his betrayal, even though she had encouraged it. They’d been high school sweethearts and married as soon as both were out of the army. For their honeymoon they had roamed the country on a motorcycle. It was a much smaller, less crowded Israel back then, in the early 1960s. There were many places where young lovers could be alone. Some of them had been here in this area. A memory of a passionate night in a sleeping bag brought up a smile, and a sigh. He looked around. Could it have been here? He couldn’t remember too much about that spot; his eyes had been mostly on Yaffa’s naked body, still glistening from a dip in a spring that must be very close by.
After their honeymoon they went to university and then began their careers. No children came. Their friends became families and soon they, childless, had little in common with them. They wanted their own children but kept putting off going in for tests. When they finally did, the doctors found nothing wrong. Yaffa did not want any treatment — it scared her. The love that should have gone to a child backed up within him, like water behind a dam, and as he felt it harder and harder to contain, he found that in holding it back he was also holding back his love for Yaffa. She felt it, of course.
They were both busy with their jobs, and neither liked housework. So they took on Katya, a hardy, square-shouldered unemployed sociologist who’d arrived with the first wave of immigrants from Russia and had, in despair, advertised herself as a maid. By that time, with no children to spend their money on, he and Yaffa had saved up enough to be able to buy into a new project of private homes going up on what had then been the edge of Ashdod. When they moved, they had more than enough room, and Katya moved in, not just cleaning but also cooking and doing the shopping and tending the garden and all the other things that maintaining a home required. She’d left a deadbeat husband back in Russia and had no family. Whether that, or just being Russian, was the source of her air of melancholy, they never quite knew. But she was also diligent and deferential, so it worked out well.
A couple years after the move, after Eitan had again brought up the subject of fertility treatment and Yaffa had cut him short, she said, angrily and despairingly, “If it’s so important to you, have a baby with Katya.”
He looked at his wife in astonishment.
“She won’t be alone, and you’ll have a child.”
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll feel better. I won’t feel that it’s my fault.” But her voice said the opposite.
When they sat Katya down to make the proposal she laughed. She was sure they were playing a prank on her. But when she realized they were serious, she took it very rationally. When Elishama was born, she was overjoyed. She refused the three-month leave they offered her. “If I lived alone and got a sperm donor I’d still have to keep house,” she pointed out.
Elishama was blond and strong and sturdy. At seven months he was walking, at eight jumping high in the air. He did not speak much and mostly liked running around in circles until he dropped. The three of them loved sitting in the living room in the evening and watching him do that.
Five years later Yaffa missed a period. Then another. She ridiculed Eitan when he said she should get tested. When the nausea started their doctor made her do it. The boy was born six months later. His complexion was dark, like Yaffa’s, and his body slender like Eitan’s. They were both overjoyed, but it quickly became apparent that they were on different planes. He had two sons, she one. She no longer took any interest in Elishama at all. Indeed, she insisted that he and Katya stay away from the baby.
Eitan was fond of Katya. It wasn’t the same passion and respect he had always felt for Yaffa, but to him the family, all five of them, felt close and part of him. As his second son grew into toddlerhood and then into childhood, the tensions increased. He found himself shuttling between two sides of the house; they had become two families instead of one.
One night, after the boy was in bed, she told him that Katya would have to leave. He objected, but he knew she was right. He had known all along that this moment would come. What shocked him was how immediately Yaffa insisted it happen.
Katya had nothing but clothing that a small suitcase could contain. She’d always lived with them had had no need to buy furniture or even a blanket of her own. He’d always assumed that she was saving her salary, but now she told them that she had sent most of it over the years to a niece in Karmiel and an elderly widowed aunt back in Kiev. He carried her suitcase, and Elisha’s backpack, as he accompanied them to the bus stop. He had packed them sandwiches and a bottle of water. When he asked her where she was going, she looked at him, shook her head, and said: “To the wilderness.” She told him not to call, ever.
He loved Yaffa and his son no less. They were a happy family in almost all ways, except for the dark spot inside him, which Yaffa ignored and the boy knew nothing about.
His shirt was soaked through with sweat and his mouth parched. He hesitated, then got up, putting his hands at the small of his back where the pain was. He was about to knock on the trailer’s the door when the woman opened it. She snorted with exasperation.
He held out the bottle. “Would you mind…” His voice trailed off and then he winced and completed the sentence: “filling it up?”
She put her hands on her waist, her elbows filling the narrow doorway. He heard the sound of her boys arguing within. She made no move.
He heard a motor. A pickup truck swerved into the clearing. A tall man with long, dirty blonde hair and beard jumped out. He pulled a rifle out after him, and two dead nutrias, which he held by their tails. Eitan was not sure how to decode the expression on her face — fear, contempt, both? The two boys ran out and began to jump on him, trying to grab the dead rodents, which he held up out of their reach.
“How’d they behave?” he asked her, looking at his sons, not at her. Then he turned his gaze to Eitan and looked him up and down.
“I guess you’d better get going,” he said.
Eitan realized that Yaffa had been right, as she always was. He nodded and got into his car.
“They’ve been fighting like two tomcats ever since you left,” the woman told Elishama. “I haven’t had a minute’s peace.”
With his free hand, Elishama dealt each boy, one after the other, a stinging, hard slap, enough to topple them to the ground and leave a red welt on each face. After a moment’s shock, they began crying, softly, looking at their father in fear.
Eitan turned the key in the ignition and the motor started, sending a cascade of eucalyptus pieces fluttering to the ground. He hesitated but could not remain silent.
“Why so hard?” he called out to his son. “They’re just boys.”
Elishama looked down on his sons and laughed like a hunter who has just felled a stag.
“Why so hard? So that they never forget it.”
And without looking back at Eitan he handed the dead game to his wife, picked up each boy by an arm, and dragged them back into the trailer.
Haim Watzman’s Necessary Stories appear in The Times of Israel every four weeks. He is the author of Company C, A Crack in the Earth, and a collection of his stories, Necessary Stories. For more information on his books, and an archive of all his Necessary Stories, visit Southjerusalem.com. To receive an email notification each time a new story appears, sign up for the Necessary Stories mailing list.