Return to Zion
by Tamar Yellin

My father, Odysseus, had a lust for travel, but after their marriage my mother Penelope insisted that he settle down. For many years he made three piece suites in a furniture factory, but he never lost sight of his true desires. Each evening he spread the maps in contemplation of an epic voyage : across the Channel, through the French plains, over the mountains ; down the Dalmatian coast, past the Greek battlefields to the port of Athens ; by way of the Aegean to the Near East and the promised land. For my father, Odysseus - and many acknowledge this is a strange name for a Jew - dreamt all his life of the return to Zion, though what he would do when he got there remained a mystery.

Many times he assured me that I, his son, Telemachus, would not be left behind. No matter that by the time I was old enough to share his journeys we were exiled to the potting shed, where in cramped conditions and the smell of compost we trained our flashlights on the intended route. The floor was a mass of trampled charts, the walls a campaign ; beneath the window with its dead geraniums lay the big atlas strewn with spider trails. Having traced the routes which seemed to us the most direct or most historical, we competed to devise the lengthiest and most fantastical : via China and the north pole, the West Indies and the Amazon ; across the Himalayas and the top of Everest, through the dunes of the Kalahari with a retinue of geckos. We would travel by train, by caravan, by camel and by car ; by ship, by barge, by liner and by junk. We plotted the course of the whitewater rafter and the hot air balloonist, and touched down at a series of small airfields in our trip by Beechcraft across America.

Nor would the miles we covered be ignorant ones. We grew into students of survival, experts in terrain : we studied the etiquettes of clans and the customs of the natives. We would never leave ourselves at the mercy of ships and weather, unmade roads or erroneous maps ; of the trickster guide or the wolf which lurks at the forest heart of Europe.

So we lost ourselves in the labyrinth of our preparations, an indefinite process in which the minutiae of timetables and forecasts, saints' days and seasonal winds were all-important, in which one must learn off by heart, night after night, the formal greetings of different peoples, the dietary precautions, the prevalence of snakes. It seemed that, if we ever did get going, we would require not only a pharmacy but a library on our backs ; which was why my father insisted that we create a digest of all the knowledge we might need to complete our journey.

Was it possible to know everything in advance? The years were passing : timetables altered, ferries were cancelled, governments fell, even weather patterns changed. Islands were born and rivers died. Our great compendium was simply a hopeless task, a nitpicking procrastination.

Sometimes of a summer evening we would sit on the back step of the semi-detached, Ithaca, where we lived ; my father would toss slug pellets on the garden and tell me stories of the ten lost tribes. Of Eldad the Danite from the land of Cush in eastern Africa, and Montezinus, who discovered the Hebrew-speaking Indians of north America ; of the little red Jews beyond the river Sambatyon, and the black Jews of Abyssinia : all the lost Israelites who would return home only at the end of the world. Beneath a sky of brilliant stars I watched the slugs make their slow progress up the walls of our house and listened to my father's voice, that slow voice I now realise was laden with a great sadness.

When autumn came we would pause by the big fire of leaves we had built in the garden and my father would talk about the promised land. About the rivers which flowed with milk and the rocks which cracked open full of honey. About the fig trees and oranges, the vineyards and olive groves, the former rain and the latter rain and the mass of flowers which sprang up every year in the desert. About shining Jerusalem and the Temple covered with beaten gold.

"Solomon in his glory," my father said, crinkling his eyes ; and we would adjourn to write up our log and ration out the strange, brain-shaped cheese my father called Macedonian Head.

Meanwhile my mother Penelope sat in the kitchen and discussed unguents with Mr. Larry Cohen of the Aphrodite Pharmacy. His case of samples at his side, he applied various creams to her hands and massaged them in ; from the kitchen window one might have supposed them to be plighting their troth, but the snatches of talk were quite innocent - "Now this is a light one, very light - " "It has a smell of magnolia - " "They really do use attar of roses - " My father entered, hands rank with poison and midges in his hair, and Mr. Cohen, enquiring after his stiff back, would recommend the latest rubbing oils. Then he would leave, and in the void of his absence my mother would air her many grievances, for nothing reminded her of my father's shortcomings like the obsequious attendance of Mr. Cohen.

Nothing, that is, except the benevolence of his brother, Mr. Cyril Cohen of the Mercury Travel Agency, who regularly dropped by with brochures. His object was to tempt my mother to Bahaman islands and European cities, and I must confess, the bright pictures caught my fancy too. My father returned exhausted from the factory, and Mr. Cohen would tell him of the latest offers on trips to the Holy Land. "No package tours," my father would say, wearily, and Mr. Cohen : "But what you need, Mr. Waxman, is a holiday. After all - " and here he winked at my mother - "Mrs. Waxman needs one too."

My father would have none of it. The farthest he had travelled in my mother's company was to the beach, where he sat on the sand in his shoes and socks and read the newspaper. He would not take a cruise, or a coach trip, or fly by jumbo jet to a foreign capital.

"You'll see," he would say ; "when the time comes," as we pored over our atlas in the stuffy shed, munching peanut brittle. He wrote up our logs and his writing resembled the journey of an absent-minded spider ; nor did I ever suspect the grand futility of our plans. Meanwhile my mother ran here and there with her many suitors, but never attempted to break the ties which bound her to him.

Evening after evening we strained to pattern the definitive journey. We set deadlines and broke them, reset and broke them again : our calendar was a tangle of crossed days. We hibernated all winter in the creaking shed ; we patched the roof with plastic when the rain came through. In summer the walls buckled and the door warped. We struggled on, our campaign collapsing around us.

Sometimes when my father leaned over to point I noticed how his hands were aging, the skin now knotted with sclerotic veins ; and how his breath when he was hungry stank like an old man's breath. Time and again he lost his glasses beneath the heap of maps, time and again they were swept onto the floor. He mended the frames with tape, but he couldn't see : he accused whole towns of vanishing, he lost the route in a blur of other roads. As for me, I now felt the occasional twinge of a gigantic boredom. On occasion my father, with a melancholy glance, would leave the house by the kitchen door, and I would not follow ; or when he came to fetch me in the early morning I would pretend to be asleep.

He was getting old ; his hands were unsteady ; he shuffled round the garden in slippers and a torn vest. At the furniture factory he cleared the bench and locker of thirty years and came home with a watch in his pocket, which for fear of noticing the time he never wore. He ate flapjacks in the kitchen and read newspapers ; he talked of building a yacht, of learning to fly. The Art of Boats sat by his bed all summer, and the library books on navigation he was always forgetting to renew. He spent whole days in the greenhouse and the greenhouse burgeoned with thistles. Foxgloves filled the garden like a tall sea. Wood from the factory yard, and sheets of canvas, and nails and pots of tar were everywhere ; hammers and saws, and his plane with the shiny handle.

It was a summer of storms, and often as I watched the rain I wondered whether, like Noah, he knew something we didn't. But later the sky would clear and fill again with stars. I stepped out into a night calmed and exhausted, warm and damp in the aftermath of storm, and standing on the back step I would watch the gleaming slugs, now dozens of them, now hundreds, climbing the crumbling walls of our house.

My mother sat in the kitchen with Dr. Arnold Cohen, brother of the brothers Cohen : she had developed professional tastes. She told him about my father's blinding headaches and the blackouts. Dr. Cohen examined my father through the kitchen window while she described the lapses of memory, the disorientation and the nighttime fits. Dr. Cohen said it was difficult to tell : but that my father was evidently suffering from something sinister in the head, yes, from a strangeness in the brain. The wind turned and the weather changed. The thistles burst and the thistledown flew.

It was the summer of my father's boat, the strange crippled boat without a prow which now took shape on our lawn. A boat in a sea of grass which would go nowhere. He asked me to help him, with a bad smile, knowing I was frightened, but without my assistance the boat grew higgledy piggledy, leaky and star-shaped, following a dozen different designs. He built a deck one day and dismantled it the next ; started on the prow and was distracted by the stern. He sat on the back step with his tremendous headache and smoked cigarettes and contemplated the boat.

It was the summer of my father's boat, of the growing strangeness in his brain, of storms and heat and nights swarming with hot stars. I made drinks for the stream of suitors who sat at my mother's table and held her hand, and held her hand in the night while we waited for my father. We watched his light moving in the darkness of the garden : the glowing tip of his cigarette moving among the thistles. We heard the mechanical scrape of his saw, the beat of his hammer ; neighbours knocked at the door and complained. When day came he went to the local shops and lost his way. He threw bills and money in the dustbin.

In his pocket he carried the retirement watch which told him how late it was ; one night he must have given in to temptation and looked. Out of the darkness we heard him cursing his own incompetence. He flung his hammer at the greenhouse. He attacked the potting shed with his mattock and saw. Early in the morning he made a huge bonfire of the potting shed and all its contents, on top of which he flung the skeleton of the boat.

Then at last the bed received him and my father slept.

For seven nights and days I sat at his bedside and listened to his slow breathing. I read him stories : about Rabbi Aaron Halevi, who travelled to the ten lost tribes through a sea of fire and smoke, and the Baal Shem Tov, tricked into taking a fast route to Jerusalem through a quicksands. Softly, so no-one should hear, I sang him the song of the Babylonian exiles.

When the Lord brought us back to Zion

We were like dreamers

Then our mouths were filled with laughter

Our tongues with joyous singing

Then they said among the nations :

The Lord has done great things for these people

The Lord has done great things for us

We were happy

My father's bed was a boat on which he was sailing away, sailing away ; I tried to explain why I had left him alone to take that journey. I wanted to tell him I would come with him now. But his eyes were closed, he heard nothing ; he was sailing away, it was a calm voyage. He stood at the stern of the boat and he was not waving. He tossed his objects into the sea behind him : a lathe, an adze, a handsaw ; a book, a cup, a pair of shoes.

Bring us back O Lord

Like streams in the Negev

Downstairs in the kitchen my mother sat with the three Cohens discussing the oddities of my father. All three Cohens shook their heads, bewildered.

"A pressure of blood on the brain," Dr. Arnold theorized.

"Self-neglect," Mr. Larry thought.

"But why not for God's sake take an aeroplane?" Cyril wondered.

My mother with the face of a grieving saint took my hand and whispered : "When this is all over, let's go away together."

Idly I browsed through the heap of coloured brochures with which she had been endeavouring to distract herself. America, Australia, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Far East - I tossed them aside one by one. I could summon enthusiasm for none of them, and I was suddenly panic-stricken at the thought of a world so shrunken there was no longer anywhere to escape to, anywhere to discover.

My mother Penelope drank wine with her suitors. This is a true story.


First appeared in Stand.

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