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.
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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