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Alienation and Love in the Hebrew Alphabet

a short story
by Lavie Tidhar



An apple tree. A little girl standing beside it.

The apples are small and bitter, like old men; they are wizened and sour.

Somewhere, a chime sounds, a wind blows leaves on the ground.

Somewhere, the hiss of escaping air.



'Where have you been?' Mother says. Anger makes her brow damp and she fights the dark hair that sticks to her skin. 'I told you not to go off on your own. You could have met anyone. Anyone! Sometimes I don't know what to do with you.'

The little girl smiles, but it is a private smile, an inward smile, one that Mother cannot, will not, see.


The little girl mumbles something. Mother snorts and moves her hair to behind her ears.

'Spacemen and spaceships! Honest, I don't know what to do with you. Go and watch television. I have to go.'

The girl goes upstairs. A few minutes later she hears the front door bang. Mother going out. She will be back late.

There is a window in her room. Beyond the window lie fields, hills, forests; in the horizon lights begin to appear from distant towns.

In the darkening skies more lights begin to appear.



There are less apples on the tree. Around the trunk the cores of eaten apples lie like unmoving ants.

There are footsteps in the wet earth, large and asymmetrical. They lead away, down to the valley, to the brook, and disappear beyond it.

The girl examines the marks in the ground. she is becoming used to marks in the ground -- the W-shape of birds' feet, the branded footsteps of children, the wide, linear marks of vehicles -- and these are new.

Experimentally, she picks an apple from the tree and bites it, but it tastes disgusting, unripe and bitter, and she lets it drop to the ground uneaten.

Then Mother, calling for her from the house, and she has to go back.



She watches the lights play in the sky.

In her new language, the word for star is kochav, the middle sound throaty like a smoker's cough. At least, that's what Mother says, and she cries when she says it, and says they should never have come here, to this place called a kibbutz and to a man called Nathan, who works in the factory now. When Mother met him in Canada Nathan was on holiday, away from the kibbutz for a year, and he had painted such a lovely picture of the place that when he asked Mother to come there with him she agreed almost at once.

'Look at this place!' she says to her daughter. 'What was I thinking?' she had cut her hair short -- 'because of the heat,' she said -- and her ears stick out, making the girl smile. 'Do you know what they want me to do now? Work in the dining room! Wash dishes!' her voice turns ugly as she mimics the voice of the man responsible for allocating jobs on the kibbutz, a short, dark man with too-tight shorts and a belly that hangs over them, covered in a chequered shirt like many of the men on the kibbutz. 'There are no bad jobs. All jobs are equal. All jobs are important. And after all, what skills do you have? Singing won't feed the sheep. Singing won't make the wheat grow. I'm sorry, but if you want to stay here you must work.'

The girl nods, but she isn't listening. She is thinking about the apple tree, and the marks in the ground.

Later, Nathan arrives, a quiet man carrying himself well, carrying also a bunch of flowers for Mother.

'From my garden,' he said.

'They're lovely,' she says.

They go out arm in arm, leaving the girl alone to her thoughts.



The brook is shallow and smells of soap; she has been warned not to drink the water, that the kibbutz's shampoo factory needs to dump waste into it, otherwise where will it go?

The footsteps lead to the water's edge and disappear.

Crossing the brook isn't easy. There are stones left in equal lengths, stepping stones, but her legs are too short and she slips and falls into the water, briefly, and then gives up and just strides across, shoes filling up with water.

On the other side the footsteps disappear. She sees a long, curving mark in the ground, and thinks it must have been made by a snake. Somewhere in the bushes, a frogs harrumphs.

She doesn't like frogs.

She walks farther, past the squat building that holds the water drill; the walls are graffitied with army marks.

She picks blackberries from the thick bushes growing by the brook, picking the red ones, the ones that haven't ripened yet. Those are sour, not sweet, and taste delicious.

She knows she shouldn't be walking here by herself, but she has no one to go with. Mother is away, gone to the nearest city with Nathan, and the other children avoid her. She can't speak the language yet and when she does try they laugh.

She rounds a bend and reaches the beginning of a forest. The pine trees are all equally spaced, and there is a sharp scent in the air, of the amber liquid that comes out when a tree is cut.

She wades into the trees and starts climbing the hill.



'I. Don't. Believe. It!' Mother pronounces each word like a slap to the face, and the girl starts to cry, helpless in the face of such injustice. She is cold, and wet, and covered in mud and bruises, and all she wants right now is a bath and a soup and her bed.

'Don't cry. Don't.' Mother holds her tight, squatting down so their faces are close. 'Don't. I'm sorry.'

They hold each other for a long moment in silence.

'I'm sorry.'



She saw nothing that first time.

But now, when she goes to the apple tree, she feels invisible eyes on her, as if someone, something in the wilds about her had noted her presence and was showing discreet interest.

And the next day, there are new marks around the tree, and less apples.

And this time, the footsteps extend beyond the brook, like signposts, just for her.

But she doesn't follow them. Not yet.



Nathan is downstairs, helping Mother with dinner. He's a nice man, really, and he wants them to be there, with him.

Both of them. But he doesn't understand.

'What have you been up to then?' he says in that way adults have, who are not used to talking to children. 'Were you playing a nice game?'

She tries to tell him about the apple tree, about the footmarks, about the lights in the skies, and Nathan nods, and smiles, and winks at her. 'She has such a fertile imagination!' he says to Mother as they sit down to eat, kibbutz-dinner, fried eggs and salad cut into tiny pieces and bread, 'such wonderful imagination!'

Mother serves him a fried egg, sunny side up, and scrambled eggs with cheese for her daughter.

'Sometimes I worry about her,' she says quietly to Nathan, later, when they are both curled up together in front of the television, alone. 'She doesn't have friends here. I think it was a mistake to come here.'

Nathan holds her to him. 'Give her time,' he says. 'Give yourself time.'


They watch an American movie in silence.



'Hey, stupid!' the big kid, Oran, holds her down in the mud and slaps her. 'You can't even talk, can you! Stuuuu-pid!'

her knee rises, a reflex, connects with something soft.

Oran lets go of her and falls in the mud himself, crying. His hands try desperately to hold something between his legs.

The girl stands and looks at him until he stops twitching and rolling in the mud and then she walks off, towards the apple tree.



Down to the stream. Cross, shoes again filling up with water. Pass the water tower, pass the blackberry bushes.

The forest, the damp, the scent of pine.

She follows the marks in the ground, the way the other children play Arrow, when one group runs ahead, chalking the way on the pavements.

Someone, something, is chalking the marks.

And she follows.



The silver disc lay half-buried in the ground.

She walks around the circumference, looking at it.

It's large, she can't tell how large because of the parts hidden in the earth, but it is big; darkened windows are carved into it, evenly spaced.

The forest is silent.

Somewhere nearby there is the hiss of escaping air.



She sits on the ground, cross-legged under shifting pine-needles and damp earth.

She sits opposite the green man.

His skin is the colour of the trees, dark green changing to brown towards the head, in which two large, narrow eyes are cut into the face. A small nose, a smooth skin, a small mouth. large head. Small ears.

No hair.

He is dressed in a silver suit that looks strange but feels (when she reaches a hand and touches it) like cloth, silky and fine and warm.

They don't talk.

Just sit there, for a long time, until it begins to get dark.

Then she gets up, turns and makes her way back through the foliage, back home.

When she turns her head to look again, he has disappeared.

But from her window, overlooking the hills, she can catch the sudden flash of silver, moonlight on metal, and she knows they are still there.



Mother is crying in the kitchen. 'Look at my hands,' she says, 'look at my fingers!'

Her hands are red, splotchy, the nails worn, the skin coarsened. 'I can't do this anymore!'

The girl comes up to her and puts her arms around her. She tries to tell Mother about the man in the forest, about the silver disc and the quiet that surrounds it.

'Will you never stop? You and your dreaming...' Mother sighs, wipes her hands on a kitchen cloth. 'I know it's hard for you, honey,' she says. She puts the girl on her lap, curls her hair with a finger. 'We'll manage. Nathan is a good man. Everyone says it's a good place to raise children.'

The girl doesn't say anything.

'I wish we could go,' her mother whispers, close to the girl's ear. 'I wish there was a spaceman in the woods, and he could take us away in his silver ship, away into the stars...'

'He can't,' the girl says. 'His spaceship is broken.'

Mother smiles. 'Go and watch television,' she says.

The girl goes up to her room. She knows Mother is waiting for Nathan.

She waits to here his steps coming up to the front of the house.

She waits to hear his knock on the door, Mother's voice, the rustle of flowers, the door banging as they go out.

But there is no noise, no sound, only the cries of the hyenas in the hills, and she falls asleep, still waiting for a sound that doesn't come.



The spaceman is waiting for her by the apple tree.

Here, in broad daylight, she can see his feet, the curious imprint they make in the ground.

He is eating the apples, quickly, biting all around until only the core remains. Then he drops the core on the ground and starts on the next.

'Why can't you leave?' she asks.

The smooth, alien face doesn't move. The narrow eyes blink, once.

Something unexplainable passes from him, to her. Not words, exactly, not thoughts, exactly; a mixture of emotions, a whole palate of them. The girl has never realised how many there were, before, how many shades of each.

The spaceman uses them like speech.

'You need...' she searches for the words.

He nods.

His eyes blink.

She senses desperation, sadness, loneliness.

He drops the last apple core on the ground and walks away, towards the brook.



Mother has a new job: taking care of the children in the peuton, the pre-kindergarten class.

She finishes early, then comes home and sits outside, looking at the hills and the forest with a king of longing in her eyes, almost like a farmer looks, hoping for rain.

Praying for change.

She drinks in moderation, she says.

The sun sets beyond the hills. In its place comes darkness, one more profound, deeper than the ones they have ever experienced in the city. Stars unveil in the sky, more and more of them, until they cover the darkness like pearls viewed through water.

The girl watches the skies with her mother; sitting out on the veranda, they search the stars together.

Nathan doesn't come anymore. Mother says he 'needed to find himself. Thought that maybe the kibbutz wasn't for him, that he needed his freedom. He was still searching for his real self.' She said it like it was a fact, just a fact and nothing more.

But the girl knew that it wasn't. And she thought of what the spaceman in the forest had passed to her, the things he needed for his spacecraft to fly.

But she wasn't sure it would be enough.



There is a circle of children around her, chanting. Pointing fingers. Laughing.

They push her in the puddle and kick water and mud on her clothes and face.

They have bright, colourful boots, with trousers tucked inside into thick socks. She can see them from where she lies, and her feelings are a complex, angry maze through which she runs.



Down to the stream. Cross, shoes again filling up with water. Pass the water tower, pass the blackberry bushes.

The forest, the damp, the scent of pine.

The ship.

'How come no one sees it?' she says. 'Sees you?'

Something like fear from the green man. Something like care. And something like pride.

'You make them not see it?'

An emotion signifying assent.

'What do you do all the time?' she kicks the ground, a little too hard. 'How do you cope with it?'

Sadness again. A shade of anger. The scent of hope.

'Will you meet me by the apple tree?' she says. 'Tomorrow?'

again, assent.

She turns away and runs through the forest, her heart beating hard with a mixture of emotions.



Night. They sit on the veranda.

The stars above are like a fractured mirror, slivers of shining glass scattered across the heavens.

Beyond the hills the hyenas laugh.



'Can you see him?' the girl demands.

Mother makes a show of looking around. 'It's time you made some real friends.'

'He's here!' the girl protests, pointing at the green man. He stands by the tree, blinking his eyes rapidly.


He does.

He envelopes them in a rainbow of emotions. Above them all hope, like a wide ray of light obscuring all others.

'Please,' he says. His voice is uncertain and reedy, like a feather on the wind.

And, 'yes,' they say, in unison, mother and daughter, linking hands.



Alienation and love. Like a mother and daughter, like two refugees in a crowd.

The spaceman walked away from the tree, towards the brook. Cross. Pass the water tower, pass the blackberry bushes.

The forest, the damp, the scent of pine.

The great silver disc, motionless in the ground.

Mother and daughter wait, holding hands.



There was a deep thrum, a vibration that shook the pine-needles A flash of silver in the sunlight.

A swathe of emotions seen through a prism, where two burn brightest of all, and conquer the spectrum. The quiet hurts, the silent tenderness, the invisible loves and the visible pains.

They channel their being into the silver disc in the woods and the skies dim and night steals on the kibbutz and the stars come out, one by one, until they fill the sky like a map.

Alienation and love; the things that move worlds.



An apple tree. A little girl standing besides it, holding her mother's hand.

Somewhere, a chime sounds, a wind blows leaves on the ground.

Somewhere, the hiss of escaping air.

Then silence.

© Lavie Tidhar 2005.
This story was first published in a Hebrew translation and then in Chizine (April 2005).

Lavie Tidhar's An Occupation of Angels
Lavie Tidhar's An Occupation of Angels is published by Pendragon Press on 1 December 2005 (ISBN: 095385986X; 90 pages; £4.99).

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