The Ravens [excerpt]

In Golan's novel, Didi's desire to escape the kibbutz lifestyle reflects a transitional time in Israeli history.

By AVIRAMA GOLAN
October 20, 2005 13:58

 
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'Sari asked Didi if she'd met Shimon at the university. No, said Didi, I met him long before. Where? It's a long story, ask my mother.

Whenever anyone asks her, she volunteers her refined version.

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Shimon was two years ahead of Didi in the regional kibbutz high school, but he wasn't one of us, he was a boarder from outside the kibbutz, and Sarka, Didi's mother, who before embarking on her nation-wide activities in the movement was regarded as an outstanding educator, called him in two or three times for a talk, because he was a boy from a difficult background. I'm not saying, God forbid, that he himself is depressive, said Sarka, but there's clearly a strong influence on the part of a self-sacrificing mother figure. Women from the Sephardi community were educated to passive suffering, she explained to the embarrassed homeroom teacher.

I think you're exaggerating, said the homeroom teacher. His father was a prominent personality in the Yishuv, and Hannah - she pronounced the name with the stress on the last syllable - is not a primitive woman from an immigrant transit camp. After all, when she was young she was a member of the underground in Iraq. Who knows what she went through.

Don't get me wrong, said Sarka to the homeroom teacher. I have nothing but admiration for the boy's inner strength, and by the way, I have no doubt that he has been influenced to some extent by our basic egalitarian values, but you can't treat my instincts with contempt either.

I didn't say anything that could be interpreted as contempt, said the homeroom teacher.

Sarka is a broad-boned woman, but not fat because she is very strict with her diet. Her breasts are heavy, her face is round and her hair is drawn back and swept up in a French pleat. She is not the kind of mother who preaches. Nor is she in the habit of interfering, just as she never took pity on her daughter when she cried in the baby-house.

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The night nurse would come to call her, and she would tell her, let her cry a little longer, I know there are mothers who want you to call them. I'm not one of them. A little crying never hurt a baby.

She may have gone a little too far with this approach, and today opinions on the subject are divided. In any event, the daughter grew tough, but not necessarily for this reason, perhaps it was simply because she inherited Sarka's characteristics. Not those of David, who is moved to tears by every little thing, and whose lips immediately start to tremble. Anyway, that's how things turned out, and Dina, or Didi, as she was called on the kibbutz - personally Sarka can't stand this name, or pet names in general - Dina grew stubborn and strong.

So much so that sometimes she would shut down for days on end and refuse to cooperate with her teachers. The child doesn't accept authority easily, Sarka explained to them, at her age there's nothing wrong with it. The only problem with Dina, Sarka thinks to this day, is that she gets easily confused between reality and imagination.

I still don't understand how you met, said Sari. Didi didn't tell her. For six years, during the entire period of her studies at the kibbutz high school, she searched ceaselessly for a moment's peace and quiet, a moment to be by herself. Even the toilets were hard to get into. People stayed inside as long as they could. To gain fifteen minutes on their own. And there was always someone in the room.

When she couldn't stand the suffocation, she would run away in the middle of a class. What is it now, Didi? I don't feel well. I can't breathe.

Nitza, the homeroom teacher, would look at her suspiciously, but she didn't say anything. Didi would crawl through the hole in the fence and emerge into the orchard of blue plums behind the school.

At the beginning of summer in the tenth grade, the dark heavy soil would be cracked with dryness and covered with a bed of leaves that had not yet started to rot. In the cool shade priests' hoods and bindweed and wild fennel would sprout. The fruit pulled the branches to the ground. The plums that had ripened prematurely and not been picked, fell and split apart slowly and silently. The juicy pulp stuck to Didi's fingers. Fat bulbuls and tiny humming birds nested in the tangled growth of the honeysuckle. One minute they approached her with wary hops and flew away, the next they pecked busily. Didi lay among the trees and read The Squaw's Revenge and Little Fadette.

She already knew them by heart. She should have outgrown them long ago. But nobody was going to tell her what to do. If Sarka and Nitza and Miki the house-mother had only known. But none of them knew.

Only Shimon, the silent boy from outside, found her out. He was thin, and his skin was darker than that of the kibbutz children, even though they hung out at the pool till dusk while he sat for hours on the tractor and never took off his clothes. He always wore a faded blue shirt. He sat down beside her and she trembled, and he leafed through her book and gave it back to her, and a week went by and then another, and on the third week he suddenly dared to touch her, and they still hadn't spoken a word to each other.

Her mouth and throat were dry and she was afraid. A spell led her hand to his lean body, and a spell allowed him to touch her groin until he almost hurt her, but also sent a strange vibration though her.

He's the wicked robber and I'm the princess, and in the end I'll die here like this, because who knows where he comes from, and where he gets his knowledge of how to cause this forbidden pleasure.

At night, in bed, she told herself that he was forcing her. That she had no choice, and that was why she agreed. But every morning, in the middle of school, her body rose from the chair and took her to the hole in the fence.

Even before the harvesting was over, Nitza saw her once bending down next to the fence and sent her back to class with a reprimand. What does she think, that lily of the valley, that princess, she said to the school principal, that if she's Sarka's daughter she can do whatever she likes? She's not the first to step out of line with me.

We've seen sluts like her before. From that day till the end of the term she wasn't allowed to leave in the middle of class, and she, in revenge, held her tongue and refused to eat. One day they served a bowl full of blue plums in the school dining hall. Blue? said Varda the fatty. What's blue here? On the inside they're completely yellow, only the skin's purple. The fact that you invented the name blue plums doesn't obligate the group. Didi swept them all onto her plate and didn't touch anything else.

You're such an egoist, said Varda. Can't you consider other people? And she went to fetch another bowl. In the evening Didi had an upset stomach and kept on throwing up, and when her fever rose they took her to the ER in Valley Hospital. When she returned she went to sleep in Sarka and David's room. On the kibbutz the rumor circulated that she had been hospitalized in the gynecological ward, you know why.

I'm not going back to school, she said. David pleaded: Dideleh, you can't set yourself apart from the group like this, but Sarka said to him, leave the child alone, a few days apart won't hurt her. I'll speak to Nitza. So what, every time she isolates herself and withdraws from the group, you'll back her up against her teachers? We're talking about normal adolescent crises here, said Sarka. There's nobody on this kibbutz with a better understanding of education than me, and with all due respect to Nitza, nobody understands the girl's psychology as well as I do.

But you don't understand anything, Mother, Didi said silently.

And in the middle of the vacation, when severe menstrual pains cramped the lower half of her body, she got out of bed, put on her bathing suit, took a towel from Sarka's closet, and announced that she was going to the pool. At the end of the vacation Shimon was drafted into the army and he didn't return to the kibbutz even when he had leave. Didi didn't see him again. So what, she said to herself on the first day of eleventh grade. In the first place, nobody knows what happened there, and in the second place - what happened anyway?

Before long Didi succeeded in reversing the reputation she'd acquired as a girl who didn't fit in. By the end of school she was in a good position, thanks to sport: the long jump, the one hundred meter sprint. She always came first, or at least second. Once she came home from the championship at Sha'ar Ha'amakim with a big gold medal. David, his chin trembling, took down the beaten copper plate which had been on the wall ever since they moved into the nice house reserved for long-time members, and with slow movements, as if performing some solemn rite, hung the medal in its place. By the end of the week it was no longer there. Sarka gave it to the school and hung a bunch of mummified flowers in its place.

There's no contradiction between my struggle against blatant individualism and my support for her individual ego, she said to David. We're talking about competitiveness here, and you know very well that I consider competitive individualism out of place in an egalitarian society. The child is already seventeen, she's strong enough, it's time she understood that with us, competitive sports too are a contribution to the collective. No, no, there's no need to put the copper plate back. I could never stand it anyway.

Didi shrugged her shoulders and walked out of the room. A few months later, in the army, when she passed a sports instructors course with distinction, she forgot to invite Sarka and David to the graduation ceremony. How can you forget something like that, Dideleh, said David sadly. How should I know? she said, I was terribly tired. For god's sake, don't make a fuss. Everything was screwed up because of Yom Kippur and the war. Half the instructors are at the Suez Canal anyway. So I forgot. So what.

Sarka was silent. But a week later Didi received a reproachful letter from her: Dina, my dear. There are certain fundamental values we live by, and lying is no trivial matter. We both know very well how often I was obliged to cover up for you in front of the whole kibbutz. Perhaps I was wrong. In any case, it doesn't exempt you from responsibility. I want you to know that your father is very hurt.

The day after Didi was discharged from the army, she notified the kibbutz secretary that she wanted to leave. For a trial period. She would definitely be coming back, but she wanted to try living in the city for a bit. David arranged a job for her at a small printing press in south Tel Aviv, which belonged to a friend of his and Sarka's from their early pioneering days, and a room with a relative who lived on the second floor in Frishman Street. Didi never mentioned her name.

If anyone asked she said that she was living with some woman, a widow but not so old.

Two months after coming to town, at the end of winter 1975, she went into Cafe Vered on Dizengoff Street for a cup of hot cocoa.

Every evening she looked for a different place to pass the time until it was late, so she wouldn't have to sit with the widow. She climbed the caf 's curving staircase slowly and sat on the second floor. The glass lamps shed a murky yellow light, and the old people sitting round the little round tables, drinking boiling tea from glasses in decorative metal holders, looked to her greedy, spiteful and scheming.

The coats hanging on the backs of their chairs gave off a smell of naphthalene, like the smell that came from the wall closet painted in beige oil-paint in the widow's apartment. She didn't know anyone, and nobody knew her.

The old feeling started settling in her stomach again. A yawning, churning whirlpool, climbing to her gullet. The kibbutz, with the mud sticking to rubber boots, with the sooty kerosene stove in the room curtained in brown and yellow stripes, lay in wait in the distance, holding out long arms and imploring her to crawl back to it.'

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