Smadar got the idea to start teaching the kids in her kindergarten class about poisonous animals the morning she started her seventh cycle at the fertility clinic. As she stood in line for her ultrasound, the TV in the waiting room was tuned to an inane morning show and she couldn't concentrate on all the glossy, made-up talk-show guests on the small screen. She didn't want to chat with the other women in line and, at all costs, she wanted to avoid looking at all the framed photos of babies, most of which were adorned with effusive words of thanks from the joyful new parents. There was something wrong with her eggs and all the procedures and tests she'd had couldn't seem to straighten it out. No matter how many hormones they pumped into her, all her eggs were chromosomally damaged, unusable. The doctor had agreed to give it one more try, since, after all, she was only 34. But he didn't have high hopes. She and Ron should think about obtaining donor eggs or adopting, he'd told them.
While she waited, she picked up a Hebrew version of National Geographic lying on a table and there it was, an article about all the poisonous creatures found in the rain forest. Frogs and snakes in neon-bright colors that could kill you. She was teaching the kids about nature, but she had always avoided anything scary. Now she realized, as she looked at these photos, that she was a little bored with all the lovely little birds and other cute animals. So were the kids, she was certain. A little poison would wake them up. She thought about great white sharks, piranhas, vultures, hyenas and snakes. It was all part of nature, that giant force that denied her the chance to have a baby, that mild form of immortality that was available to nearly everyone else. When she was fairly sure no one was looking, she slipped the magazine into her backpack.
As she zipped it shut, she stood up very straight, planting her legs in a way that she knew would discourage other women from trying to elbow in front of her. She had long come to dislike these women who trooped through the clinic with her and not only because many of those she had started out with two years ago were coming back for their second or third children. No, she despised them because most of them were the kind of women she had always felt superior to. So many of them seemed to wear tight jeans decorated with glittery flowers or gold stitching and T-shirts with inane slogans in English, had bleached hair, wore heavy jewelry, covered themselves with pancake foundation and painted their lips vampire red. They spoke loudly, their Hebrew filled with mistakes, their faces reflecting, at best, mild annoyance and at worst, barely controlled rage. The Orthodox women dressed modestly, of course, and were nerdier, but they still had the same aggrieved expressions. The Arab women, usually dressed in floor-length skirts similar to those of the Orthodox Jews, kept such a low profile that they made little impression. But the others, as a group, filled Smadar with hatred and despair. She was so slender and graceful, she had always been athletic, done well in school, married young, gotten a degree in preschool education and a job at a prestigious kindergarten sponsored by the Reform movement. But here she was, lining up with these legions of losers, begging the fertility gods for some healthy eggs, just like they were. She pulled off the rubber band that held her ponytail in place and shook out her long, straight brown hair: no henna or bleach for her, ever. As a woman in a cropped magenta top that revealed a roll of fat tried to step in front of her, she summoned the energy to utter the required words, "I'm next." Sometimes she thought hell would be to spend eternity in the center of this hospital, waiting in the lines for blood tests and ultrasounds.
When she had done the paperwork and had her ultrasound, she lined up outside the blood lab. This was the only part of the process she didn't hate, because the blood technician was a strange old man named Ben-Ze'ev, literally, Son of a Wolf. The name suited him, since he liked to make bizarre jokes about the softness of the flesh on the arm she offered him for the blood test. His black humor was a relief after the saccharine smiles of the harried nurses in the clinic. He also hummed while he worked and declaimed Persian poetry. When she walked in, he always acted as if he were seeing her for the first time. He never acknowledged the years of fruitless testing that she had been through with his lab. If she were reading something, he always asked what it was and then nodded, as this were also his favorite book. Today, she raised the poison-frog National Geographic to show him and he nodded soberly as if he had had a lifelong interest in these creatures.
Lifting her arm, he said, as he always did, "What nice, soft flesh. But what will we do with it? We need to cook it and eat it."
At first, she couldn't believe how bizarre he was, but these last two years had changed her.
"Grill it," she said.
"Good. I'll grill it. Do you know Persian?"
She shook her head.
"What a shame," he said, pulling the rubber chord tightly around her arm, then swabbing her skin with alcohol. Unlike Ron, he never warned her when the needle stick was coming.
"There's a nice poem about a lamb in Persian," he said, mumbling a few words as her blood flowed out.
"All done," he said, then wrote "Good luck" on the test tube, next to her name, something else he did every time.
PLANNING THE lesson kept her going as she waited for the elevator after the blood test. Visions of the day-glo frogs floated before her all the way back to her car, which she parked way out on the road because the hospital parking lot was completely filled by 7:30 a.m. The worst part of the walk was going past the sign for the kibbutz store nearby. "Super-Fresh Eggs," it read in huge white letters on a green background. During the first couple of treatment cycles, she and Ron had laughed about the irony of this sign being near the entrance to one of Israel's largest fertility clinics. That was when Ron still went with her for most of the testing and treatments. These days, she went herself and that stupid sign had inspired a few crying jags. But now, she thought about an art project that the kids could do, using bright colors to create their favorite poison frog. That would fill half the morning and was much more original than having them make pictures of butterflies again.
Her instinct was right. Silence descended on the 24 children as she held aloft a photo of the frogs from the magazine she had taken. Even Ido, who had never sat still for ten consecutive seconds in his life before, looked at the deadly but brilliantly colored invertebrates with real interest and even asked a question about the seizures the frogs' poison caused in their victims: How long did such seizures last? She wasn't sure, but she had long ago learned the importance of bluffing for this most demanding of audiences and said, "A whole day, sometimes."
Ofir, a girl wearing a lavender dress, her long hair held back with pink barrettes, said, "And then what?"
"And then you die," said Ben, who had saved Smadar from many embarrassing moments during circle time when she fumbled for an answer, because he knew everything.
"No!" several children called out.
"Yes," he insisted. He looked at her and so did all the others.
"Ben is right," she said. "You die."
Ofir burst into tears and one of the classroom assistants stepped forward to comfort her.
Smadar shrugged. "That's nature," she said.
AT HOME, she searched the Internet for photos of sharks and piranhas. Ron noticed what she was printing out and asked her about it.
"I've started teaching the children about poisonous and man-eating animals. No more flowers and butterflies. I'm sick of them and so are the children."
"Don't you think you might get a few complaints from the parents? Won't the kids have nightmares?"
"Screw the parents. What right do they have to shield the kids from the real world for so long?"
"A lot of parents shelter their children. Didn't yours?"
"Everything wasn't so sugar-coated when we were growing up. I used to watch the news with my parents. You did, too."
"Yeah, but when we were kids, there weren't suicide bombings every week."
"But there was always something. There was the war in Lebanon and famine in Africa, and now there's famine in Africa again. But who's telling the kids about it? They'll grow up thinking the world is a good place."
"Like you did." He put his hand on her shoulder and stroked it.
"I just don't believe in hiding the truth from children. It only scares them more."
"Are you sure?"
She felt furious at him for doubting her, but said nothing more than, "Of course I'm sure."
"It's time for your shot," he said. "Are you ready?"
Ron had been a medic in the army so he gave her the various fertility shots himself and she didn't have to run every day to the clinic for them. She only went to the hospital for the tests.
"I'm always ready."
"I'll set it up."
He went into the kitchen, shooed the cats away and began filling the needle from the proper bottle. Smadar trailed after him.
"Look at the kids in my class," she said. "How many of them are about to have a new sibling in the family, or just had a brother or sister born last summer?"
"I don't know," he said, replacing the lid on the bottle and returning it to the refrigerator.
"I've told you," she said, regretting how bitchy she sounded but unable to stop herself. "Anyway, there are six mothers of kids in the class who are pregnant right now, and four others had babies over the summer."
"What does that have to do with the poison animals?" he asked. They walked over to the couch and she lay down, baring her left arm for the injection and gripping the table.
"OK, here's the thing," she said, as he swabbed her skin with alcohol.
"You're going to feel a little stick."
She held the table tighter as she felt the needle. He was brilliant at doing this so the shots hurt as little as possible and there was something in the bizarre intimacy of this act that brought them together. They had sex so rarely now, because they were living in what she thought of as an infertility parallel universe. That's why it was important that Ron inject her instead of a nurse. Physically, it was all they had between them right now.
"How is that?" he asked.
"Good, you did it really well," she said.
"No, no, you're my good baby. I know you're being brave. Just a little more and we'll be done. You're going to feel a little pressure now," he said and she felt the cold fluid begin to flow slowly through her body. He always said, "a little pressure," but it really did hurt.
"Anyway, so many of these kids are about to have a new baby in the family. And for kids, that's terrible, their whole world collapses," she said, as the liquid continued to flow.
"So that's the problem, you identify with these kids who are suddenly going to lose their parents' attention?" Ron was a management consultant but he said his job was half psychology. She often felt that he sounded like a shrink.
"Yes. No. I don't know." She thought of her own sister, 32 with three kids and her brother, 30 and two kids. She had always gotten along OK with them, but now she loathed family gatherings.
"Just about done, now." He withdrew the needle and rubbed her skin again with cool alcohol.
Lying down, he hugged her, careful not to put pressure on her arm. His wide face filled her field of vision, but she had to look away from his eyes. For months it had been torture to look at him, because she was so convinced that it was only a matter of time before he left her, not for a more beautiful or understanding woman, but for a fertile one. Why should he give up his chance to have children, just for her?
As the fertility process had worn on, she had begun to withdraw from him, convinced that their time together was drawing to a close. Sometimes she wanted to come out and ask him to leave her, so that at least she wouldn't have to wait for the day he would tell her that they should talk and then say his goodbyes. But whenever she brought it up, he said that no, of course he wouldn't leave her, what was this, the Middle Ages? When she tried to press him for his feelings about adoption or egg donation, he said, "I'm not ruling anything out now, but let's see how this next cycle goes."
Instead of being grateful she had the ideal man, she was consumed by fear of losing him. Another thing that bothered her was that the mothers of the children in her class, the ones who were now having their second, third and even fourth kids, were often not terribly attractive. They hadn't kept in shape between pregnancies. But they were fertile, they were mothers and they walked everywhere flaunting their swollen stomachs, smugness in their eyes and their weary smiles. They were tired a lot of the time, it was true, but it was the fatigue of victory. They were the winners.
"Do you want to go out?" he asked. "Visit someone? See a movie?"
She knew if they had kids, they wouldn't do these things, not at this hour, not at the last minute. Whenever they were at a party and the subject of movies came up, all the mothers would immediately say, "Oh, I haven't seen a movie since little so-and-so was born." The fact that she still saw a movie now and then marked her as barren, she felt. Jealous and angry, she stopped talking about movies altogether.
"No," she said. "I want to download some more shark pictures."
He stroked her hair, kissed her head, then sat down to watch TV.
She clicked on something called sharks.com, but the pictures were too small and didn't come out well. Right at this time, a few years ago, she would have called her girlfriends. But now, they all had kids. They were either putting them to bed or too exhausted to talk. She now saw the women she considered her best friends once or twice a year. They invited Smadar and Ron for Saturday lunch or Friday dinner sometimes, but Smadar couldn't stand being around their children, the kids who always got their mothers' attention, no matter how obnoxious or intrusive they were.
Even when she called at a time that didn't interfere with the bedtime routine, her friends would never say, "Quiet, I'm talking with Smadar." It was always, "Smadar, hang on a sec. What honey?"
All these people with kids were raising them rather badly, it seemed to her. She would have been a much better mother. It had always been so much fun for her, being around kids. That was why she had gotten a degree in early childhood education. It was especially important to her to always try to be honest with kids, which was why she felt so strongly about teaching them about the real world now.
This new direction she was taking at the kindergarten was also a way for her to reconnect with the world. Sometimes, it seemed that all she could think of now was her infertility. It created a wall between her and the rest of the world. She had realized this during the past summer, when traffic in Jerusalem had been brought to a standstill almost daily by demonstrators protesting the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.
Looking at one of the demonstrators, a heavy-set woman dressed in a denim jumper festooned with orange ribbons, she couldn't think about the issue (she and Ron were in favor of the withdrawal), or even be angry at the inconvenience. Instead, she just stared at the baby the woman carried in a snugli and the three children in orange T-shirts who stood with her. "You bitch, so what if you have to move, you have four kids!" she had wanted to scream.
She was about to slump down in despair over it all when she remembered that one of her neighbors had given her a pile of old National Geographics she had planned to take to school so that her kids could cut out the photos for collages. She went into the bedroom and found a cover picture of a great white thrusting its head out of the water, its teeth bared.
THE COVER photo got their attention immediately when she held it up the next morning.
"Those are only in aquariums," Ido said knowledgeably, as several of the children squealed in horror.
"Yeah," said Liron, another pink-clad girl who always sat next to Ofir.
"They live in the ocean," Smadar said calmly. "Like all sharks."
She showed them pictures of sharks swimming and another shot of a photographer in a chain-mail wetsuit, shooting the creature from perilously close.
"See, this man was brave enough to swim right next to the shark and take a picture," she said. "But it says here that he has been attacked by sharks."
"Did he have to go? Who made him?" Chen asked.
"It's his job. He loves to take pictures of sharks."
"But they're only in America," said Ben.
"The great white sharks are usually found in very cold water, and there are lots of them in the oceans off America."
"There are no sharks here," he said.
"There aren't any great whites here," she conceded. "But there are other kinds of sharks in the Mediterranean." She found a picture of some tiger sharks in another article and showed them to the kids.
"You mean, they could eat us if we went swimming in Tel Aviv?" Ofir asked.
Several of the kids said, "No!" loudly, at once.
"No one that we know of has been killed by a shark in Israel," she said. "But there have been shark attacks on swimmers in other parts of the Mediterranean. In Greece, for example."
"Greece?" Chen shrieked. "My aunt went to Greece last month."
"There have been several shark attacks in Greece. Here, children, let's find Greece on the map. And then I'll give you pieces of blue paper in the shape of a shark and you can decorate them any way you want. We have stickers and glitter."
SO THE week passed with a new animal every day: piranhas, vultures, and rattlesnakes. For Friday she was planning a lesson an animal called the meerkat. They were very cute little desert rodents and the children would have seen them at an exhibit in the zoo. Although their parents might have told the kids where the animals lived and what they ate, they probably hadn't filled them in with an interesting fact she learned on the Internet: Meerkats often ate their young, especially if they were in captivity. She could imagine the squeals.
But when she arrived, Noa, one of the classroom assistants, excitedly told her the latest news: two of the kids' moms had had their babies the night before: Fat, sullen Dafna, Ido's mother, and fat, airhead Miri, Yanir's mom. She stood there, absorbing the news. Touching the sore spot on her arm where Ron had injected her the night before, she said, "Oh, really?"
The pained expression on Noa's fresh face told her it was an inadequate response.
"We'll make cards," Smadar said, which was standard procedure at the school. "I'll talk about it at circle time. I can talk to them about how there are all different kinds of families. That will be good."
"IDO'S AND Yanir's mommies just had new babies last night," she told the class. Ido jumped out of his chair.
"Sit down, Ido!" she said automatically. "Now, we all want to offer our blessings and after circle time, we'll make them cards. But let's talk a little about families. There are all different-size families, right? Now Ido has four children in his family, him and his brothers and his sister. And in Yanir's family there are three. How many does everyone have in his family? We'll go around the circle."
Most of the kids knew, but a couple had to have her help them count all their siblings.
"Good," she 10 or even 11 or 12 kids. Most of these people are Orthodox. You see those men on the street, dressed in black."
"Haredi," said Ben.
"Yes, that's another name for them. So they have 10 children, and most of us, we have only two or three children "
"Or four!" said Ido, jumping up again.
"Sit down, Ido," she said. "Or four. But did you know, children, that there are some places where people have only one child? Where they're only allowed to have one child?"
One girl said that in Haifa people could only have one child. It turned out that she had an aunt there with one baby.
"Yes, but here in Israel, people can have as many children as they want, even though some of them only have one because that's what they want. But there is a country called China, the biggest country in the world, where people are only allowed to have one. Let's look at it on the map," she said, pointing to a large wall map where China was colored pink.
"Do you know how many people live there?"
Ben said he knew. "Nine hundred thousand."
"Even more. A billion and a half. That's how many people live there. And each family can only have one baby. If they want to have more, the government, their prime minister, stops them."
"What does he do?" asked Ofir.
"There's a way he can make them not have more babies, and he does that."
"How?" several children asked.
"It's very complicated. But it works." Smadar noticed that Noa, who was sweeping up the floor around the table where the children ate breakfast, was giving her a strange look.
"My sandals are from China," said Ben, who could read a little English because his parents were British and had learned to find the words, "Made in China," on nearly everything.
"Yes, many, many things we use and buy are made in China. Because it is such a big country, they make things for the whole world."
"Smadar?" said Liron.
"Yes?" she said, thinking the girl had some urgent question about population control.
"Did you get more silver glitter for making the cards?"
The kindergarten had run out of silver glitter a few days before. For some of the girls, it had been a crisis.
"Yes," Smadar answered, surveying the blank faces before her. Population control did not interest them nearly as much as poisonous animals. She would have to think of a different way to teach them about the real world.
THE NEXT subject was natural disasters. She started by talking about an earthquake in Iran, which had taken place earlier that week.
"Ten thousand people are believed dead," she said.
"But only grown-ups," said Ofir.
"No, children die, too. Let's look at Iran on the map."
Hadn't there been an earthquake in Israel last year, one boy wanted to know.
"Yes," said Ben. "It was 4.5."
"Ben is right. There was a small earthquake here last year. Who remembers that day when we had to leave the building and wait outside?"
They all remembered.
"My daddy said that in Israel there can't be big earthquakes like the one in Iran," Ben said.
"There haven't been any, but there could be. No one knows where the next earthquake is going to strike," she said, smiling at them and rubbing the spot where Ron had injected her last night.
Noa, who was sitting with Ofir in her lap, said, "But Smadar, in Israel, we have scientists who are able to tell us when an earthquake is coming. So if we hear there is going to be a big one, we can leave Jerusalem and go someplace safer."
"Yes, but sometimes after an earthquake, there are fires and floods, so that many homes are destroyed. People lose everything."
"Even their toys?" asked Ofir.
"Even their toys," Smadar said.
Ofir burst into tears. Noa comforted her while Smadar told them their art project for the day was to paint a picture of wrecked houses after a quake.
THE NEXT day, it was time for another procedure at the hospital. Under general anesthesia, doctors removed the four eggs that Smadar had produced this cycle. In a couple of days, they would know if any of them were fertilized, healthy enough to be reimplanted and grow into a baby.
She was dozing, still a little groggy from the surgery when her cellphone rang. She was all alone. Ron had been with her but had gone out to make some business calls in a spot where his voice wouldn't disturb anyone. Past the pastel flowered curtain surrounding her bed lay two other women, both of whom had had their eggs harvested that morning as well. She thought it was probably Ron calling from the cafeteria to ask what she wanted him to bring her, so she answered the phone.
It wasn't Ron. It was Rahel, her supervisor. Rahel was just 10 years older than Smadar but had two children in the army already.
"Can you talk?" she asked.
"Sure," said Smadar, knowing what was coming but not quite prepared.
"A few of the parents have told me you've been adding new curriculum recently," Rahel said.
"You've been teaching them about sharks and poison snakes? Earthquakes? And population control in China?"
"I've been teaching them about the world."
"Several children have been having nightmares. Ido's mother called to complain. Even though she just had her baby, she managed to find the time to call. Ofir's mother, too."
"Children have nightmares. They're scared of things. It's natural."
"You think those are appropriate subjects for children their age?"
"Listen, Rahel, when you hired me, you said nothing was off limits but the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Well, I'm not teaching about that. When the children asked about the Gaza withdrawal, I told them, 'Ask your parents, talk about it at home.' OK? I said nothing. I think it's best not to talk about that. I agree with you. But why do we have to tell them the world is all cuddly kittens and flowers? It's not. They know it's not. They're curious about what I'm teaching now. You should see their eyes light up when I take out the pictures of the sharks or the frogs..."
"Poison-dart frogs. They come in beautiful colors. I've even got a project planned to make refrigerator magnets out of their drawings. The parents will love it."
Rahel sighed. Although Smadar couldn't see her face, she knew she wasn't getting through to Rahel at all.
"I know you've been under stress lately," said Rahel. She knew about the damn IVF treatments. By now, whenever Smadar said she would have to get into work a little late for a couple of days, everyone knew what it meant.
"Everyone's under stress all the time, Rahel, don't you see?"
"Noa has noticed you've seemed very stressed out lately. She said you've been pale and tired."
That little bitch. Rahel had all these spy networks. It made Smadar sick.
"I'm just fine. I'll be back at work tomorrow."
"Why don't you take another day? I'll get Liora to fill in."
"I'm fine. It's not good for the kids to have so many substitutes."
"It's not good for you to work if you can't see that you're scaring the children. Take another day. I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. And when you come back on Wednesday, stick to what you planned at the beginning of the year."
Smadar wanted to argue, to tell her off, but she summoned her self-control and remained silent.
"OK," she said.
"And Smadar, if you want to talk, you know my door is always open. I know I've told you, but I had two miscarriages before I had my first child. It's never easy. I know. Don't feel as if you're alone."
Looking at the plaster-board institutional ceiling, she shifted in bed carefully so that the IV drip attached to her hand wouldn't hurt even more. "Thanks, Rahel," she said, then drifted back to sleep.
THE REST of the week, Smadar played it safe. She knew it would be bad to piss off Rahel, so she just went taught lessons about the seasons (without mentioning the Greenhouse Effect), holidays, and learning to share. It was as if not teaching what she wanted was a sacrifice she was offering to the fertility god. She might not believe in a white-bearded figure in the sky who controlled everything, but she knew in her bones that some power was in charge of the baby lottery and decided who would bear children and who wouldn't.
Finally, they got word. None of the eggs were usable. The doctor asked for a meeting. As they sat across from him, in his office filled with baby pictures, she couldn't meet his gaze or Ron's. All she knew was that she had failed and she sat and cried quietly as the doctor talked to them about egg donors and adoption. At one time, she would have hated herself for her lack of control. Now she didn't care. She thought for a minute about going to say goodbye to Ben-Ze'ev, but couldn't face it. It was especially hard to walk through the waiting room, past all the women who would soon have what she would never have.
This time, she did take a few days off, crying in bed, not watching TV, reading or talking to her friends because everything and everyone made her sadder. Ron was a prince, cooking for her and trying to cheer her up. But whenever he was there, she pictured him and the new wife she was sure he would acquire soon, wheeling their baby in a stroller.
Finally, she knew it was time to go back to work. She could pull herself together. She was a professional and maybe this was meant to be her role in life, caring for other people's children. She would be fine.
Just as she was getting to the entrance, the two mothers who were chatting there as their children wandered in and out, stopped and looked at her. One of the women held a six-month-old baby, her second. Touching Smadar's arm, she said, "I'm so glad you're back."
"Me, too," said the other. Their expressions of pity said it all: They knew why she had been away.
"Thank you," she said, stepping through the door.
"If you ever want to talk," said the one with the baby.
It was the pity, the deep compassion in their expressions that got to her. Later, she often thought that if they had kept talking, if only they hadn't said anything to her, she might not have done what she did next.
"I've got to get some things ready. We're starting a new topic this morning," Smadar said, as she stepped past them.
Inside, she foraged through the pile of National Geographics she had brought into school last week until she found the one with the cover she wanted. At circle time, she held it up and said, "Children, this is a picture of New Guinea. They have a special kind of people there. They're called cannibals. Let's go find New Guinea on the map."