The Disposable Lighter

Posted in Uncategorized on September 17, 2013 by jeanaboulafia

In the early seventies, I was demobbed after a three years stint in the navy as per the custom, I got a month long furlough before my final release,  time I used to grow my hair and purchase vividly colored jeans and a straw hat, as preparation for civilian life. Eventually I returned to base to return my military gear and get a chunk of money a grateful government saw fit to grant me for services rendered.

And so it happens I was waiting for a bus in the central depot, wondering what to do with the beginning of my life, burning cigarette after cigarette in the heat of the summer, amidst the diesel fumes and the vendors’ shouts of the big city when I happened to see her. Blonde tousled hair, big sunglasses that didn’t quite manage to hide an exquisite pair of brown eyes and a mouth that reminded me of Marilyn Monroe. The bag pack seemed too big for her medium frame and she seemed lost in this seedy part of town. I followed her with my gaze, knowing I had time till my bus came. I struck a match and lit a cigarette watching her struggle under the enormous pack on her back, in the heat of the day. She seemed to be looking for something and I guessed she was looking for a specific bus line,

Our eyes met briefly. And she altered her course. She stood two feet from me and waved a ticket holding hand in front of me. “Do you know where is the bus to Eilat?” she asked. Her English was good, but I could detect a strong French accent underneath. I thought hard and quick. Eilat is a town on the Red Sea, the gateway to Sinai, a popular destination for the unconventional tourist. I had a wallet full of money and no obligations whatsoever.

“You are in luck,” I replied, speaking French. “I am travelling there too”

“oh,” she cooed, “you speak French. And you are going to Eilat. I am Sandra.” She struggled with her backpack and extended a hand. I shook t, noticing its softness.

“I am Andy,” I said, and my voice sounded odd to me. “Well, it is Andre, but everyone calls me Andy. Can I help you with your bag?”

“No, I am fine.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “You are travelling light for someone going to Eilat.”

I laughed and patted my front shirt pocket. “I have cigarettes, I have money, I am fine. Come, the station is that way.”

We had to cross a couple of streets to reach the station and I watched her looking around with a rapt expression, as if the heat, the bad smells, the hustle and bustle were exactly what she was looking for. Her eyes were everywhere, on the beggars, the garish shops that sold all kinds of knick knacks, the loud music from the cheap music stores and even at the large poster for an erotic movie playing in a cinema nearby. “This is wonderful,” she said in front of a shop that sold nargilehs.

i liked her immediately.

The bus station to Eilat – an asbestos corrugated roof over a hard wooden bench – was full of soldiers toting guns who eyed Sandra appreciatively. Her fair complexion and her clothes, a Che Guevara T- shirt, black jeans and white Stan Smith sneakers, clearly marked her as a foreigner. She looked at them apprehensively and I leaned to her and whispered to her ear that it was okay. She relaxed and accepted a seat one of the soldiers vacated for her. Her smile was enchanting.

The bus was long to come and I used the time to get acquainted with Sandra, who happened to be Alexandra and lived in a suburb of Paris, had just finished university where she majored in journalism and was beginning a trip around the world.

“And you start it here?” I asked, “of all countries in the world?”

She smiled shyly. “My ex spent a great summer in Sinai and I guess I got infected.”

I liked the sound of “her ex”. It meant she was available and god only knew I was too.

So, I thought. It’s Sinai. I was glad, because I’d been to Eilat and found nothing exceptional about it. It was a small tourist town with big hotels and a rocky beach. Sinai, on the other hand had the reputation of being a haven for people who wanted to get lost in the endless desert beaches, where the fish population was as abundant as it was exotic and the Bedouins welcoming. Of course, I wasn’t prepared in the least but I figured I could buy what I needed in Eilat. The trip would take five to six hours and we’d be there late afternoon.

“You know we won’t be able to get to Sinai today,” I told her.

She lifted her sunglasses to her forehead and fixed me with her hazel eyes. “We? I thought you were going to Eilat,” she said, her tone a little frosty.

I shrugged. “Eilat is the stepping stone to Sinai. I always wanted to go there.”

“Eric, my ex told me the people here are friendly, but perhaps you are too friendly. I don’t believe you meant to go to Eilat at all. You were waiting for a bus when I met you.”

The soldiers around us were watching us, I saw in their looks envy mixed with curiosity. I smiled sheepishly at her. “Okay, I admit I decided to go to Eilat on the spur of the moment. But just before I saw you I was wondering what to do with myself. I just left the service after three years and was debating what to do when you appeared. I took it as a sign, you know, karma.”’

She looked at me for a long time, trying to decide whether to believe me or not and I met her eyes unflinchingly. Eventually, she gave me a pinched smile. “All right, I believe you, but I am watching you.”

At that moment, the bus appeared and stopped at the station with a hiss of compressed air. The soldiers assailed the front door and we waited patiently to climb aboard. I didn’t offer to carry her backpack.

The soldiers had all gathered at the back of the bus where smoking was allowed and Sandra and I took a seat next to the back door, where I could at least stretch my legs. The trip to Eilat in those days took six hours and I had the feeling it wasn’t going to be easy.  We sat in frosty silence as the bus negotiated its way through narrow streets.

Sandra was sitting next to the window and feigned an interest in the traffic outside of the bus and I pulled a pack of cigarettes from my shirt pocket. I nudged her with my elbow and offered her one.

She picked the cigarette with delicate fingers and run it under her nose as one does with a cigar. I was about to strike a match when she noticed the box in my hand.

“Oh,” she exclaimed. “What a pretty matchbox. Can I have it? I collect them, you see?”

Wow! I thought. What a cheap peace offering. Of course she could have the matchbox.

“Can I light one first?” I asked and I winked at her.

“Wait!”” she said with a note of urgency. “I have something better.” And with that we started rummaging in one of the many pockets lining the side of the bag pack on the floor, to my side. She had to lean heavily on me to reach it and I could feel her body heat on my lap and the softness of the breasts pressing on my thighs. “Here!” she exclaimed with a triumphal cry and produced a long object in her hand. “For you!”

It was made of pink plastic and wasn’t hard to understand what it was, although it was the first time I had laid eyes on it. A plastic lighter. I turned the wheel and it produced a small, steady flame which I presented to her. She took a long drag, kept the smoke deep in her lungs and tipped her head to the side, reflecting. The she exhaled a long plume of smoke.

“Not bad,” she said with a smile that brought to mind a hot air grate and a lifting skirt. “But I am a Marlboro girl.”“How do you fill it?” I asked, showing her the lighter. The awkwardness that we’d shared earlier seemed forgotten.

“Oh, but you don’t, you throw it away.” Her hand chucked an imaginary lighter out of the bus window.

“Well, thanks,” I replied, a bit sheepishly.

She pulled a book out of her bag and again her breasts pressed hard against my thighs and I was praying she wouldn’t find it. She did. It was a guide book and I sensed a myriad of questions were coming and I leaned as back as the poorly designed seat would allow, tipped my hat over my eyes and feigned to go to sleep. I was thinking of red lips and incredibly soft breasts when sleep took over.

When I woke up, the sun was lower, shining through the bus window. I was resting on Sandra’s shoulder and she was asleep, her head pressed against the window, her mouth agape and drool running on her chin. Outside, the first sign of the desert appeared in form of Bedouin encampments, grazing camels and palm trees. I straightened up and stretched.A big burst of laughter coming from the back seat, where the soldiers had taken residence woke Sandra with a start. She wiped her mouth and looked around and a slow smile spread on her face when she saw some camels on a hill nearby.

“Where are we?” she asked while rummaging in her handbag.  “Ah, here they are.” She produced a pack of cigarette and pulled two which she stuck between her lips. “You got light, sailor?” she asked in English, obviously imitating someone I didn’t know.

“How do you know I am – or was – a sailor?” I was astounded.

“What, you don’t know Mae West? It’s a famous line. What, you were a sailor? A real one?”

I nodded and produced the lighter and lit the two cigarettes in her mouth. She took one and stuck it between my lips. “So where, are we, sailor?”

“Another famous line?” I joked and she raised an eyebrow in muck contrition. “I think next to Beer Sheva. We get to rest there. We could eat something. I know this shakshouka place that-“

She burst out laughing.“Wait, wait! What is this shakshouka? It sounds really funny.”

“Something you eat,” I said somewhat tersely. “Eggs, tomatoes, a chunk of bread to mop it. Interested?”

She wrinkled her nose. “It doesn’t sound that appetizing.” She stubbed her cigarette out. “I am thirsty,” she announced, her lips almost pouting.

The bus entered Beer Sheva through a straight line of low cost buildings, half dead trees and dilapidated shops.

“This is not how I imagined your country” she said, as she peered through the bus window. “It reminds me of the less savoury Parisian suburbs. All these buildings who look like a train, it’s dreadful.”

i agreed, but said nothing.

The bus stopped at the main depot and the driver told us we had half an hour before we resumed. That give us just time to grab a quick lunch.

We left her bag in the bus. In those days no one would have dreamt of stealing anything and i was sure that the soldiers, some of whom stayed in the bus, would keep an eye on it.

The place was exactly as i remembered it. the same cracked walls, the same pictures of severe looking rabbis scolding us, the same rickety tables and the same black clad, toothless old lady who placed a chunk of bread and cheap cutlery on the bare table. I ordered something cold to drink.

Sandra was looking around at the little shop, her nostrils flaring at the delicious smells emanating from the kerosene stove on which a big pot was bubbling. “Smells good. I just realized, I haven’t had anything to eat since I left Paris.”

Behind her counter, the woman ladled red sauce into a skillet and cracked in eggs which she stirred with a wooden spoon. We waited, smoking cigarettes which a lit with my new lighter.

The woman in black placed two steaming plates on the table and left us to our devices.

“Look, I’ll show you how to eat it.” I tore a chunk of bread and dunked it in the steaming plate where two perfect egg yolks floated in the mass of tomato and egg white, like two suns in a red sky.

Sandra picked her fork. “What about these?” she asked.

“Bah,” I dismissed her. “It’s for tourists The real natives eat like that..”

She laughed, the same soft laughter that had me in trance/ “You are funny.”

I didn’t think so, but didn’t contradict her either. “Now, pay attention, this is the tricky part,” I said and pierced one of the yolks with the piece of bread. The yellow yolk spread on the plate. “The trick is to dab the bread and get the exact measure of tomato and egg yolk.” I bit into the bread. “Try,” I said.

She did, hesitantly and watched with wonder the yellow of the egg mix with the red and white in her plate. “It’s like a Van Gogh,” she said and took a bite. A rapt expression spread all over her lovely face. “It’s wonderful! I take back my words.”

With that we dug in until the last bit of bread had mopped the plates and all was left was a red stain on Che’s left eye.

After that we ran back to our bus which promptly resumed its journey south.

We passed the time smoking and talking. She wanted to know how come I spoke French and I wanted to know everything about her.

Soon we hit the Scorpion Descent, a series of hairpin twists and turns and on our left we could see glimpses of the Dead Sea shimmering in the hot sun,  and every turn or pot hole – and there were many of those – threw us violently on each other.

“I bet you are enjoying this,” Sandra said to me after a particularly sharp turn splattered her soft body against mine.

“I am not complaining,” I replied, grinning.

“Lucky you have ears, so your grin knows where to stop,” she observed, but the twinkle in her eyes softened her scolding.

Soon we reached the Arava, a stretch of desert that would eventually lead us to Eilat. On our left were the Edom Mountains, tall, barren and turning pink with the sun slanting towards the West.

We reached Eilat at dusk and as we alighted from the bus, a heat wave hit us like a hammer, knocking us off our feet. Sandra wouldn’t let me carry her bag, as she claimed she was about to travel a lot and needed to stand on her own feet. Fine, I thought. I left her in café where she ordered a large orange juice and I went shopping. I didn’t even have a toothbrush/

When I was released from the army, I was paid a nice sum of money which I went to spend. I bought a small backpack, a swimming trunk, a towel and some other bare necessities. I had no idea how long I would stay in Sinai, but I figured I would live on the cheap.

When I returned, Sandra was reading a book and she gave me a bright smile.

“What now?” she asked as she stuffed the book in one of the numerous pockets of her bag pack.

“We find a beach to spend the night, and tomorrow morning we head south.”

Eilat in those days was a small town with big monolithic beach front  in the east and a narrow rocky beach all the way to the old border. I picked some bread, cheese and wine from a local store and we made our way south.

It wasn’t easy to find a spot as many people had pitched tents straight on the beach and the air was thick with the smoke and the smells of charred meat from the barbeques. Sandra was struggling with her backpack and I felt a perverse satisfaction at seeing her sweating profusely. She was too pretty and seeing her like that made her more human.

Eventually I found a small cove between the rocks with enough gritty sand to accommodate us both. Sandra laid her sleeping back on the sand and we shared a meal of bread and cheese and gulped the cheap wine straight from the bottle.

That was a moonless night but the stars sparkled like diamonds on black velvet and the guitar our immediate neighbors played through the night lulled us to sleep. It was a most uncomfortable night for me, what with the hard sand and the proximity of that beautiful woman who’d appeared in my life only a few hours ago and whose light snoring didn’t diminish the appeal.

I woke up before dawn, cold and tired and lit a cigarette, gazing at the distant lights of the city to the north. the guitars were silent as were the noisy revellers of last night and the only noise was the lapping of the wavelets in the sea not ten paces away and the chirping of the birds.

Sandra was asleep in her sleeping bag, which she had pushed away and in the growing light i could see the swell of her naked breast peeping out.

i smoked in silence, admiring the sleeping figure.

“Enjoying the view?”

I jumped, startled. “How long have you been awake?” I asked. I felt myself blushing

“Long enough to see you watching me,” she replied and yawned. “I slept beautifully. Now, turn around.”

“You shouldn’t sleep naked when in presence of strangers,” I teased as i complied.

“I always sleep in the buff. And you are not a stranger. I might only know you for a day, but i can tell you are harmless.”

I didn’t know what to do with this comment. Was it a compliment? .I flicked my cigarette in the sea.

“OK, you can turn around now. Want some tea?”

She was wearing a pair of shorts and the same Che Guevara T-shirt with the tomato stain. I eyed her silently. She had perfect legs. “I want coffee,” I said. “And where would you get tea?”

She rummaged through her bag pack, the portable Ali Baba cave of hers and retrieved a small gas stove and a couple of plastic mugs. “Tea is all I got. If you want coffee, you march back to town.” she pointed with her chin towards the city.

She brewed the tea and we drank it in silence, watching the sea turn from dark purple to a deep blue and the mountains opposite the bay define themselves against the rising sun.

It was time to move. We packed and walked to the road that would take us past the old border into Sinai. Many cars passed that narrow road, some even stopping but no one wanted me. They would take Sandra, but alone. And she refused the rides, standing by me, under the cruel sun. It was nearly midday before an army supply truck halted with a screech and a cloud of dust. The driver craned his head and asked where we were going. I said “Neuaba” and he motioned to Sandra to get in. I was relegated to the back of the truck, between crates and boxes while Sandra hopped into the cabin.

What an uncomfortable de it was. i sat amid the crates, boxes and barrels and the road, a narrow ribbon of pot holed asphalt , wound its way between the sparkling sea and the steep mountains. I could only see through a slit in the canvas covering the back of the truck and all i could see was a vast emptiness. I started checking the boxes around me. It was food. Loaves of sliced bread, cans of jam, tuna and sardines, big wheels of hard cheese. I realized i was starving so, without ceremony. I tore into boxes and started feasting. When i was replete, i stuffed my bag with canned goods and a couple of loaves of bread.

Eventually, the truck halted and i jumped out. The door opened and Sandra alighted, sending air kisses to the driver and his acolyte. The truck drove on and we found ourselves on a desert road with a single sign post that said “Neviot” in Hebrew and Arabic and a dirt road that led to the sea, half a kilometer away.

“What’s in the bag?” Sandra asked suspiciously as she shouldered her how bag.

“Food i found in the back of the truck. it was crammed with it, so i took some.”

“Isn’t it stealing?”

“Would Che call it stealing? Wouldn’t he call it rather ‘liberating’?”

She looked at me, puzzled. “Che? What Che?”

“This Che!”  I replied, pointed at her shirt.

Then it dawned on her and she laughed. “All right, you liberated some food.” she reached inside her short picket. “Look what I liberated.” she pulled a large, brown, cloth wrapped chunk of hashish and presented it to me. “The truck driver had hard time lighting his cigarettes while driving, so I gave him I one of my lighters. And then his companion made a long face, so I had to give him one. And in return, they gave me this.”

I took it and sniffed it. “It’s good. You did well.” i gave her a quick hug and for the briefest of instants she froze, as if this intimate contact was too much to bear. ”Hey, that was just a friendly hug. I didn’t mean… you know,” i said hurriedly.

“I know,” she sighed. “But i only know you a day. Even though it seems longer.”

I shrugged. “Let’s go, we have to set our camp.”

The walk to the Nueba beach was short and soon we found ourselves on the shore of a wide bay, with a few palm trees,  a few cabanas covered with dry palm fronds, a couple of showers and a cinderblock one story building ,that served as a general store, cafe and restaurant.

In this late afternoon, the shore was almost deserted. The deep blue sea was calm, with dark patches where underwater rocks laid. In the far distance to the south there were a few shacks belonging to the Bedouins.

Sandra took the scene with shining eyes. “This is how my ex described it,” she said with a small voice. “I want to go to the water.”

“We have to set camp first,” i objected. “There!” i pointed to the south towards the undulating sand dunes.

We trudged along the coast towards the sand dunes. The “dunes” were the refuge for the Nueba colonists, those who came to lose themselves in this earthly paradise since there was no hotel or any other accommodation. The dunes were covered with clumps of reeds and palm trees that made ideal dwellings for the unfussy. One simply flattened the center of any of the palm clumps, added a blanket or two for privacy and some sort of woven mat bought for a pittance from the Bedouins for comfort and you had a place to stay. The shade provided by the trees was enough to stave off the intense heat and the sea nearby provided both cooling and food.

Of course, the best places were occupied and we had to go a long way to find an empty clump which was littered with cardboard boxes and an old blanket, but was large enough for two. Within a couple of hours of our arrival and with a bit of scavenging around we had a cozy place. Sandra deployed her sleeping bag and it was understood that we should each stay in our respective area unless invited to cross over by the other.

My dream of bedding her was fading. And yet, as soon as she declared our abode ready, she turned her back to me and stripped naked in order to don a two piece swimsuit that left very little to the imagination. My throat constricted at the expense of pale flesh that she displayed without any shame or embarrassment.

“Ready for a swim?” she asked when she turned around. I swallowed hard and nodded, hoping she would not notice my own embarrassment. .”And hide your silly grin,” she added as she went out, into the fading light.

The water was fresh, clear and so full of fish that it was hard to follow them. Whole schools of striped, dotted, colorful fish darted here and there. Big sea urchins lined the sand and rocks and all manners of shellfish clung to the mossy rocks. It was a feast to the eyes.

We swam and dove and watched the sun go down behind the tall mountains and even though there were a few people on the beach and in the sea, we felt we were alone. And when we swam, our bodies would touch occasionally, sending electric shocks through my body as if i had touched an electric eel.

Eventually, when the sun set we were forced to come back ashore, where the small colony was preparing for the evening. Guitars started strumming, fires were lit and the denizens came out to enjoy the cooling breeze. Back in our hut, Sandra fried some salami on her stove and we ate ravenously. Afterwards, she rolled a couple of joints and we went out to smoke them under the sparkling stars.

That night I slept soundly on top of a mattress made of rushes and i dreamt of Sandra in the guise of a swimming eel who kept prodding me with the electric charges.

Then we fwll into a routine.  We woke up late, drank tea, went to swim and then went for breakfast at the kiosk where we used the bathroom and showers. Then we returned to the dunes where i did a bit of fishing for our supper while Sandra tanned and read her book.

The little colony was very dynamic. People left, others showed up; clusters changed  shape and  ownership and I was never certain who lived where.

On the third day of our stay, a couple from New Zealand moved to the cluster next to us and very soon they had the nicest digs: hammocks to sleep on, drapes to give them privacy and bags of food which they carted from the kiosk.. They were an odd couple, even by the lax customs of our colony. They spend their days swimming or smoking a large Afghan bong, drinking heavily and generally having a merry time. She was called Ana (with one n, as she never failed to mention), a skinny woman with sun bleached hair, blue eyes and an integral deep tan. I say integral because Anna and Frank, a corpulent man with long sideburns and a goatee, were devoted to nudism and only donned the minimum when going out of the colony.

Sandra and Ana became friends and soon we were invited over to share a bong or a snack. Soon both women would spend their days sprawled outside on a mat, naked as the proverbial truth, one reading her book, the other trying to find places where the sun had not yet reached and burned to a crisp.

I would watch from afar, only sorry the subject of my not so hidden desire was never alone. Frank didn’t like my “French manners” and sought company with other English speaking guys. From what Sandra told me, he came from a rich ranching family in New Zealand and he liked to party and was quite free with his money. Which left me lots of time by myself, fishing and thinking, thinking and fishing. Thinking of Sandra, of course.  I was besotted by her.

The Bedouins, a conservative lot,  avoided our little camp because the nudism, which was by no means restricted to Anna and Sandra, offended them, but it was not uncommon to spot their kids spying on our camp from the edges of the dunes. The adults usually frequented the kiosk where they sold their wares to tourists: beads, woven mats, fish or tobacco.

On occasion a Bedouin named Omar would come to our camp with a couple of horses or camels. He was bald, had bad teeth, wore an old pair of pants which he folded to his calves and rode bareback.

One day, when I was bored – Anna and Frank had gone for the day and Sandra was bathing in the sea – I decided to take a horse ride. I wanted to get away for a while and I had always loved horses. I negotiated a price with Omar and he gave me the reins of a young horse with the pure lines of an Arabian. We galloped on the beach towards the south, leaving behind the last remnants of western civilization. Soon we were crossing the narrow asphalt road and venturing into the foot of the mountain where narrow roads twisting between boulders took us higher, with a widening view of the sea, now sparkling blue under the fierce sun. We dismounted on a narrow cliff and Omar leaned on a boulder and watched the view below. I pulled a packet of smokes and tossed it to Omar who caught it in midair. Inside were a few cigarettes, a couple of joints and the disposable lighter Sandra had given me. Omar picked one of the joints and pulled the lighter, which he observed under all angles before trying timidly to turn the wheel with his thumb.

“Achla davar,” he managed to say smiling and lit the joint with the flame he just produced. “My father would be curious to see this.” He extended his hand to give me back the pink lighter.

“You keep it,” I said with a dismissive gesture. “Just let me light this.” We smoked in silence for a while the horses rested. When I tried to pay him for the ride, Omar refused adamantly.

Back in camp, Sandra was outside, catching the sun and reading. And wearing her two piece swimsuit, and I wasn’t sure which I liked better, her naked or her in that gorgeously brief swimsuit?

That evening, after a delicious meal of sea urchins and fish i had caught that afternoon, and a bottle of wine the Ana had given us, we were lounging on the sand just outside the clump of palm trees we called home, gazing at the bright stars above us.. a guitar was playing not far, and Sandra and I were chatting idly. Her cheeks were red, and not from the fire someone had lit nearby. A drum joined in and somehow Sandra was leaning against me and my arm naturally hugged her shoulder.

A voice joined the music. It was a high, feminine voice and it sang a ballad. In English, as it seemed to be the language most people in the colony spoke. and as the voice deployed in the darkness. I “translated” it for her. “She sings,” I said, “about two people meant for each other and when they meet, he realizes that she is not aware that she is meant for him. And no matter what he does, she is not changing her opinion of him.”

She laughed and looked at me. “First,” she said, “I speak English and you know it and second, that’s not what’s the song is about. But your “interpretation” is clever.”

I pressed her shoulder i appreciation and she gazed at the stars. “You know,” she said finally, still looking at the sky, “you are a good guy. Unfortunately, usually the good guys don’t get the girl. You are dependable, trustworthy. I immediately trusted you. But as i said, women love danger, bad boys.”

I wanted to tell her about the war i had just survived, the dangers I had been through, but on second reflection, no matter how well i had behaved under fire, I had not chosen to be there and the fact I had looked at death in the eyes and not flinched had nothing to do with what she was saying. However, i had been courting danger for years, sailing in all manners of seas, from the dead calm to cataclysmic storms, taking delight in challenging the elements for the sake of an adrenaline rush. But then, Sandra never said i was a coward, just that I didn’t exude that aura of audacity which, according to her was essential to win her heart.

“But do not worry,” she added hastily. “You are spontaneous, smart and funny. There are plenty of women who will like you. You are a motek. “. Motek means sweet.

“Where did you learn that word?” i asked in wonder. Outside the voice soared in the night air and the palm trees above rustled in the light breeze.

Instead of replying, she wriggled in my arms and suddenly her lips were on mine. She tasted of salt and wine and it tasted marvelous. And even if it didn’t last long, every millisecond of it was branded in my memory for ever. It was not a friendly kiss, nor was it a passionate one. She lingered long enough for me to want more but not enough to let me think that i had a carte blanche, and the hand that hovered above her breasts was firmly pushed away.

“Now now,” she said and grinned mischievously. “Don’t make me slap you.”

i was reeling under the suddenness of the event. Savoring the taste of her lips. I rolled over on my back, my head resting on clenched hands, looking up at the sky. “I imagine that’s how Marilyn Monroe must have tasted,” i said idly and she rewarded me with a brief smile.

”I watch you all day, naked or dressed, swimming or reading, and you know i am..,’ I hesitated. “Attracted to you. I hear what you say about your liking ‘bad boys’. i know i am not one of those”

“I could set you up with Ana,” she said teasingly. She was facing me, her head propped on her hand, her elbow resting on the mat.

i groaned. “No thank you. Frank would break my neck, even if i found her remotely attractive. You, on the other hand…”

“Yes, me what?”

I shrugged in the dark “As if you don’t know.” I ran my tongue on my lips in a vain effort to taste her lips.

Her eyes were positively dancing in the glare of the fire. “So you fancy me?”

“Who wouldn’t fancy Marilyn Monroe?”

She wriggled closer to me; her mouth came very near my ear. She whispered. “Do you really think I look like her?”

“Your mouth. It’s a perfect copy. It has this-”

She put a finger across my lips. “Shhh.” Then she pressed her lips against mine, and this time her tongue followed.

To this day I can’t tell how long this kiss lasted, but in that magical night it seemed to last forever. And when our lips parted my heart was racing and the blood was rushing through my veins.

“What was that for?” I finally asked.

“I am leaving tomorrow; this is my parting gift.”

Later that night, I went for a night swim. I needed to cool off. Then I let myself be seduced by a fat American I had noticed earlier. I didn’t let her kiss me on the lips but she didn’t care. There were other places on my body for her lips. When I returned to our abode between the palm trees the next morning, Sandra was gone. She’d left a note with one word: “Thanks”, as well as what was left of the hashish and a yellow plastic disposable lighter to replace the one I had given Omar the Bedouin..

And to this day, whenever I flick s lighter, I am reminded of the night I tasted the lips of Marilyn Monroe.

 

.
““

 

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The Organ Donor

Posted in Fiction, organ donation, Short stories, Uncategorized on March 19, 2013 by jeanaboulafia

The doctor looked at the patient sitting across his desk with frank curiosity. It wasn’t just the black eye patch covering his left eye. He glanced at the open file on his desk, as if to match what he’d been reading with the man who sat in a relaxed position.

He was a slight, well-dressed man in his fifties – though the medical file gave him the exact information – with salt and pepper hair, a gray goatee which he stroked with a delicate hand. His eye had an amused expression that somehow seemed incongruous in view of the circumstances.

The man leaned forward and fixed the doctor with his one eye, “I bet you have questions for me,” he said, a small smile twisting his well-designed lips.

The doctor noticed with a touch of annoyance that the twinkle in his eye was still there. He picked the file and adjusted his reading glasses. “Hmmm..Yes, as a matter of fact I do, Mr.-“

“Delmar, Aureliano Delmar,” said the man and smiled.

“Mr. Delmar, you came here for a kidney transplant. As a donor, am I right?”

“Yes Doctor, you are right.” He pointed at the file. “It’s all there.”

The doctor flicked a few pages, his head shaking in disbelief. He snapped the file close and lifted his gaze to the man opposite his desk. “I will be frank with you Mr. Delmar,” he said and leaned towards his desk and put his elbows on the smooth wood.

“It’s better than being Steve,” said the man and laughed softly.

“What? Who is Steve?” asked the doctor, his face registering confusion. “Oh, I see, a bit of humor huh?”

Aureliano Delmar smirked but said nothing.

“As I was saying, Mr. Delmar, I was appointed to assess your mental condition prior of your next donation.” He tapped the file with a finger. “That’s quite a story there and frankly-” he shot a quick glance at the patient, “I am baffled.”

“I know, they think I am cuckoo,” the man replied and shrugged.

The doctor scratched his head. “You donated about every body part that can be donated and stay alive. I would understand if you did it for the money. Is this the case?”

Aureliano Delmar jumped to his feet. “NO! Emphatically no.” he tapped his eye patch with a finger. “This is the only donation I did for money.”

“Calm down sir. I have to ask those questions. Why don’t you tell me your motives? Let us start with…” he flicked a few pages in the file. “Your liver. That was your first, yes?”

Delmar sat down, a pensive look on his face. “Yes. I did donate a liver lobe. To my brother. My twin brother.”

The doctor placed the file on the desk and leaned back on his seat. “Tell me about it, please.”

“Jose Arcadio was my twin brother. Identical twin. But he was a sickly boy and grew up to be a sickly man. And very unlucky. When he wasn’t sick in bed, he’d fall off a tree and bleed like a pig. I, on the other hand, never saw a doctor in my life, except when I had to visit him in hospital. And when his liver failed, the doctors suggested I donate a part of my liver. I loved him as only a twin can love and was glad to oblige. As I said, I was healthy and recovered in a matter of days. To me it wasn’t so different than all the times I gave blood.

“At any rate, Jose recovered and went back to his family. I never married and have no children, so I was happy for him and what’s left of my liver functions well. “

The doctor nodded. “I understand perfectly. This kind of altruism is not unheard of, especially with siblings and more specifically with twins. Please go on.”

“I told you Arcadio was unlucky, a few years after the liver transplant, he contacted leukemia. Again, the doctors thought he was lucky to have me because I could donate bone marrow. It was extremely painful, but I did I gladly. He was my brother.”

“Did the bone marrow help?” asked the doctor. Despite his misgivings, he found himself drawn into this man’s world and so far, he could see nothing wrong with his behavior. Who would not do their utmost to save a brother?

A sad smile flicked across Delmar’s lips. “Yes, that and the chemotherapy. I suffered once, but he spent months of hell. He lost weight and I could barely recognize him, when there was a time I would look at him and see myself. Only his eyes remained the same.”

“So he recovered?”

“Yes, Doctor. He did, but I told you Arcadio was unlucky. The day he was pronounced free of cancer – he already looked much better and his hair had started to grow back, he was killed in a car crash.”

The doctor looked up, aghast. “A car crash? How unlucky indeed,” he said with a voice full of compassion.

“It’s not even the worse. You see, Doctor, Arcadio had started feeling better, as I told you. He insisted on driving by himself to the hospital. I think that he had a vague plan to put an end to his life should the tests prove negative. To spare him the pain and his family the added financial burden. So when he got the good news, he immediately phoned his wife who arranged a small party. Just some friends and the immediate family.”,

At this moment the phone on the doctor’s   desk rang and a look of annoyance crossed his face. “Yes. What is it?” he snapped. “I asked not to be disturbed.” He listened for a moment and put the receiver back. “You were telling me about your bother.”

Aureliano Delmar crossed his legs as his hand stroked his goatee. His face bore a sad smile. “As he was driving out of the hospital parking, a drunk driver driving a huge SUV rammed his car and killed him on the spot. It turns out that the car was stolen and the driver was indigent. Which means Arcadio’s family didn’t get a cent. I told you my brother was very unlucky.”

The doctor had to admit to himself that his view of the curious little man had shifted and instead of a suspected psychopath, he found a warm, deeply caring human being.  “And the eye?” he asked, pointing at the black eye patch.

“Well, as I was telling you, Doctor, Arcadio’s family was left with nothing. Even the car he was driving wasn’t insured. All they had was a long list of creditors. Arcadio was a carpenter, a gifted one. He owned a furniture refurbishing shop which was nearly bankrupt. I needed money fast.”

The doctor took the file and leafed through it tehn started reading. “You sold a cornea?”

Delmar nodded slowly. “I had no choice; I had to save my brother’s family. There was no one else.”

“But how?” wondered the doctor. “It’s bound to be illegal to sell one’s organs.”

Delmar made a dismissive hand gesture. “There are ways. If you spend as much time in hospitals as I did, you are bound to learn a thing or two. And people – rich people – who are about to lose their sight will go to great length to avoid that fate.”

The doctor knew he ought to be horrified, but strangely enough, he wasn’t. a warm smile appeared on his thin lips. “I hope you got enough, Mr. Delmar.”

“Enough to put Arcadio’s things in order and then some. Now I run the business with Ricardo, my nephew, and we are doing all right. He got his father’s touch and the business is prospering.”

The doctor looked at his watch. His next interview was due soon and he had to wrap this one. He still had one question left. “So, this kidney you want to donate. What is your motive? Pure altruism?”

Delmar grinned widely. “You can look at it this way, but the truth, Doctor, is that when I give my kidney, I will enter the Ginness book of records as the man who donated the most organs and stayed alive.

The End

The Visit

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on February 12, 2013 by jeanaboulafia

Iris Yardeni, a petite, curly blonde of thirty odd years and very pregnant, shuffled a few feet behind the small group of – mostly – women, making their way past the massive gate of the Offer correctional facility for security offenders. Next to her towered an older man with a shock of gray hrdair, a black eye patch over his right eye and a scar across the cheek.

On both sides of the gate stood guards in gray uniforms and dark glasses despite the cold, rainy day. Iris, with her elegant knit dress and leather jacket, high boots and Italian raincoat contrasted sharply with the people ahead of her. Women in long dark shapeless robes and head covers, restless little kids and men with long faces and black moustaches. She cast a grateful look at the man who stood next to her and who held her lightly by the elbow, leading her towards the left side guard who, with a hand held metal detector and a name list, vetted the visitors. On the other side, she could see an argument between two veiled women and a guard, an officer by the look of it, about the latter’s refusal to let them in as the prisoner whom they came to visit was in lock up. The wailings and the cries “ibni, ibni,” depressed her even more.

Since the phone call the evening before last, she had not stopped worrying. Yoss was in jail! The same Yoss who, the day she was about to tell him about the baby growing inside her, had left abruptly and without any explanation, never to be seen or heard since. The same Yoss who broke her heart. The same Yoss she was determined to see now. And so here she was, she thought glumly, entering this world of pain in order to get the closure she needed; to say the words that needed saying for her to move on with her life.

The crowd moved a few feet along. A gust of wind whipped her knee length dress and a flurry of dead leaves from the surrounding woods billowed towards the gully surrounding the gray facility. The weather fit her mood. The phone calls, one from Yoss’ sister and one from his lawyer, although Yoss was one, opened a flood of emotions and repressed anger that had festered in her since that day, six months ago.

They had met over three years before, at a peace conference, each of them representing different organizations and backgrounds; she was the dilettante, the almost idle, rich single woman, he was the criminal law practitioner. She was Jewish, he was Israeli Arab, self-proclaimed Palestinian, promoter of Jewish-Arab collaboration. It helped that his Hebrew had been flawless and accent less, that he was handsome, and, in his dark green tailored suit and muted tie very elegant. It had pleased her esthetic sense to see a meticulous man with an eye for the detail. They hit it off immediately, bonding in this international atmosphere as only two people that come from the same place can bond. He was practicing law in Tel- Aviv and she had an art gallery in the same city.

“Yes? Who are you coming for?” the gruff voice of the guard at the gate interrupted her memory flow.

“Yussuf Haddad,” said the man next to her with an authoritative voice.

The guard perused his clipboard through the dark shades. “I don’t see any visit for Haddad. Who are you?” he measured the odd couple from head to feet, his face impassive.

Iris turned to the man with the eye patch. “Uncle?” was all she said but her eyes were imploring.

The man reached in to the inside pocket of his heavy coat and retrieved a wallet. Two fingers in his right hand were missing. He flipped it open and pulled out a plastic card which he presented the guard.

“Haggay Yardeni,” intoned the guard, reading the details on the card. “GSS veteran.” He handed the card back. “So what if you are a vet? You are still not on the list.”

The officer from the other side of the gate stepped over. “What’s the problem?” she asked. Her short, bottle red hair glinted in a rare and brief sun appearance in the dark sky.

The guard explained and she asked to see the card. “Yeah,” she said. “You are a veteran, but this Haddad is pre-trial and can only receive lawyers. I am sorry; you are not in that list.” She gave back the plastic card.

Haggay Yardeni scowled. “Will you be so kind as to call the head warden? It is Manny Asher, it is not? Tell him ‘Unit 177’. He’ll understand.”

While the officer made the call, Haggay turned to Iris. “We served together. I didn’t want to call ahead, thinking my status would suffice. After all, I helped put some of the most dangerous elements behind these walls. Don’t worry; you will see your man.”

Her man, she thought bitterly. He had been her man for three mostly wonderful years, but he wasn’t her man now. Now he belonged to these gray, wire topped walls. Did she know or suspect it would end like this? At first she was in shock, but reliving the events in her head, she would have to admit that the signs were there even though at first she would have been horrified to even think of such eventuality. They had a non-spoken understanding that both belonged to different cultures and that each of them would accept the other’s adherence to his or her own interests. He was a proud Arab Israeli Moslem Palestinian who saw his political and social work for the benefit of his people. He was a popular lawyer whose perfect Hebrew and eloquence coupled with his deep understanding of Arab culture won him points both in court – he had a good acquittal rate – and among potential customers, mostly Arabs from Jaffa, where he lived in a luxury apartment. He’d had everything, she thought bitterly. He had a life and he had me. Why would he leave all that?

“Haggay Yardeni!” the voice boomed from the long – now empty – corridor that led inside the facility. “Why didn’t you call ahead? I would have made the arrangements.” The head warden clasped Yardeni’s mutilated hand. “It’s good to see you. I heard you retired.” Turning to the officer, he said “This is an old friend. Fetch the man he wants to see and put him in an interrogation room, while I offer coffee to my guests.” He turned to Yardeni. “What do you want with the man?” he asked, as they paced inside.

“It’s for my niece here, Iris,” he replied, pointing at her. “Iris, this is an old friend, Manny.”

They shook hands while the warden’s gaze stopped at her bulging belly. He could do the math; connect the dots between this affluent woman – who hadn’t heard of the Yardenis of Rishonia who practically owned the Hula Valley? – and the man accused of treason, of selling information to the enemy.

Haggai Yardeni put his arm around the warden’s shoulder. “It’s a long and painful story between my niece and this man. It has nothing to do with state security, so I will appreciate if you could give them some privacy.”

“I only do it as a favor to you, Yardeni. I do not approve at all of dalliances between Jews and Arabs, especially when said Arabs are also accused of treason.”

“I owe you, Manny. I won’t forget it. And I expect it to be a one-time visit. “

They proceeded to the warden’s office, where Iris was offered coffee. She refused but accepted a bottle of cold water. She was nervous, angry and tired. She was always tired these days, she reflected. And she would have to raise the child alone as the father, a few dozen meters away, wouldn’t be available. And for a long time to come, she mused. As all Israelis, Iris had a healthy respect for the GSS and believed it to be almost infallible. It didn’t occur to her that Yoss was not guilty of the crimes he was being accused of.  So it was a foregone conclusion that he would be away, even if she had ever considered keeping him in the loop. But no! Not after he’d left her without even giving her a chance to tell him she was pregnant.

It had started in Athens, when he’d invited her to a late lunch. At first, she’d had no idea that the handsome man with the fluency of language of a real intellectual was Arab. His name, Yoss Haddad could have been either Jew or Arab. His accent was perfect, including perfect pronunciation of those letters that do not exist in the Arab alphabet.

They spoke of peace and co-existence and she was surprised to learn of his attachment to a golden age when Muslims Jews and Christians lived side by side in harmony, in Moorish Spain a thousand years ago! He made her laugh with anecdotes of his court appearances, made her blush with an erotic Arab poem and made her dizzy by filling her glass with the surprisingly good Greek wine, whenever her glass was half empty. She was pleased that he drank alcohol. Either he wasn’t Muslim or, if he was one, he wasn’t fanatic about it.

They met again, in Tel Aviv, him coming to the gallery she owned and managed, she dropping by the court house so they could grab a meal. When he rode his monster bike into her street one evening, as she was watering her flowers, she had the feeling things were getting deeper and oddly enough, she was anticipating it. Yoss was definitely not her typical date material, ant yet, with his leathers and black helmet, revving the monster as if defying her to refuse him; she felt butterflies in the pit of her stomach. And when they drove away on the bike and she hugged him tightly against the fierce wind, she knew she wanted him.

He never moved in, but he started spending time in her fashionably furnished apartment on Gordon Street. It had a large balcony filled with flowers, some good modern furniture mixed with some antique pieces and gave off a cozy feeling. She spent some nights in Jaffa, in his museum looking large house. And they avoided politics like the plague.

Her reverie was interrupted by her uncle who walked to her and bent over, concern in his one eye. “Are you all right, Iris?” he asked, bending over, his fierce face in front of hers.

“You mean except that I am pregnant and going to visit my child’s father in jail?” she replied with a hint of sarcasm.

He smiled. “That’s my girl. Anyway, Haddad is not available right now. We shall have to wait.”

She shrugged, her gaze travelling along the Warden’s office walls. The customary vanity wall with the collection of pictures of the warden with celebs, flags of units in which he had served, a couple of plaques. He himself was at his desk, talking on the phone amid the coming and going of prison personnel running the facility.

The baby chose this moment to kick her and she placed her hand on her bulging belly; the baby that came as a surprise and was supposed to patch things between her and Yoss. Even though they were both peace activists, they were a mixed couple whose respective peoples were at war with each other, and even with the banning of politics, religion and the Palestinian conflict, the events proved stronger. A series of armed conflicts between Israel and Lebanon first then Gaza put a strain on their relationship as each of them identified with his and her side. He accused her people of barbarism and she could not accept a reality in which an unseen enemy was hiding behind children and women to launch barrage after barrage of missiles against a civilian population. Their relationship started deteriorating as arguments replaced the conversations she’d enjoyed so much. After all, Yoss had opened a word she’d been barely aware of.

Outside, the rain was coming strong, battering the windows.  She glanced at her uncle, now slumped in his easy chair across the warden’s desk, asleep. She smiled an affectionate smile. What would she have done without him, she asked herself. Her father, with whom she barely talked, had repudiated her for her choice of mate and uncle Haggay had stepped in. “Love is all that matters,” he’d told her more than once and even now, when Yoss’ treason had been revealed, he had not said a word against her choice. On the contrary, as soon as she’d heard the news, he’d been there for her, helping locate him and drive her in this dreadful weather. As if reading her mind, Haggay Yardeni woke with a start and looked around. He glanced at his watch and mumbled something under her breath.

Iris recalled something that happened a short time before Yoss had stormed out of her life and she turned to her uncle. “Uncle Haggay, do you know something about lands the family purchased around Rosh Pina in the early fifties?”

Haggay Yardeni frowned, his one good eye fixed on her. “I was a young boy then,” he said. He ran his hand through his thick hair. “Those were times of mayhem and you know that the Yardenis have been known to take advantage of… opportunities. And those were abundant. Why do you ask?”

“I am not sure,” she replied with a note of uncertainty. “It’s something Yoss said just before he left. He said that our family grabbed the lands of his family.”

Haggay rose to his feet and looked through the murky window then turned around to face her. She noticed that Manny was listening to their conversation. “I thought his family was from Haifa,” Haggay said finally.

“Apparently, they moved there during the hostilities of 48-49, but the land they owned in Rosh Pina was forfeited. And he claims we ‘stole’ it.”

Haggay shrugged. “It’s entirely possible. As you know, the family motto is ‘land is bought, never sold’. I was too young then to know anything, but I would not put it past grandpa Samsonov to grab any piece of land he could lay his hands on.”

Grandpa Samsonov. She remembered him vaguely as a strong man with a huge mustache who was only happy when tilling the land on his red tractor. He’d been a legend in the valley, a “man of the soil” who’d inherited an already large estate and increased it considerably. He was the one who’d changed the legendary family name to Yardeni, as a homage to his beloved Jordan river, flowing not a mile from the mansion-like house he’d built years before she was born.

“I could make a call, you know,” Haggay Yardeni said, fishing an old fashioned mobile phone from a pocket. “The trustee will have the information.”

Iris made a dismissive gesture. “No, don’t bother. It was an excuse anyway. True or not, things were deteriorating between us,” she said, a pensive expression on her face. “It seems life can be stronger than love.”

Despite everything, Iris never stopped loving him. That she was sure that he would never be part of her life again, was also evident to her, but love him she did. The last few months they were together tested her love to him, though. He found many excuses to avoid her, cancelling dates at the last minute or simply not showing up. They still made love but he rarely spent the night and he almost never invited her to his place, which she loved. It was such a contrast to her own, with its Israeli simplicity and lack of imagination; where his had a museum quality  with vintage pictures of rural and city life in old Palestine, a great range of Arab musical instruments and elegant Arab calligraphy in large posters.

One day, when she missed him really badly and she was in Jaffa on business, she decided to visit him. It was late afternoon and he was likely to be home. She had the key and when she had tried to call him, she went straight to voicemail, so she let herself in, along a corridor towards the living room where she knew he liked to spend his free time. He was there, and looked surprised at seeing her. And he wasn’t alone. The four men scattered on the couch and easy chairs were all strangers and looked worried at seeing her. They all exchanged looks and the four rose as one and made a hasty departure, without acknowledging her. When she’d questioned Yoss, he was evasive and gave her no real information. “People I know,” he mumbled and refused to elaborate. That incident should have warned us. After all, he was a criminal lawyer and it was possible that the four shady characters were nothing more than clients, but at the time she didn’t think they were.

Looking at the warden’s office and all it implied, she had to admit that deep inside her, she knew that one day she would visit him in prison. She watched him radicalizing towards Arab nationalism and Islam. He started growing a beard and refusing alcohol. And their fights grew bitterer. The more he accused her people of all the ills that befell the Palestinians since the appearance of the Zionists in his land, the more she clung to her view of the conflict and that contrary to what he believed, she thought that both sides were like two trains on the same track. Both had the right away and both had the choice of collision or separation. The Jewish people had to come to Palestine and make it Israel and the Palestinians had the right to oppose them.

And then, she found herself pregnant and the first thing she did was call her aunt Hava in Rishonia, then drove home, her mind in turmoil. How would Yoss take it? Would it patch things up between them or make them worse? It had not occurred to her to call her father as he had left long ago, sending his wife to an early grave in the process. She sent a loving glance at her uncle, deep in his own thoughts. He would be the closest to a grandfather her child would have, and he will love it, she reflected. Her own estranged father was out of the picture and after the birth she would move back to Rishonia, into the house she was born with her uncle and aunt and raise the child.

When she got home, she found him there, which surprised her greatly. He was packing his stuff into a cardboard box and refused to meet her enquiring eyes. Before she could recover from her surprise, he finally met her gaze and said he was leaving, that it was over and that she would not be hearing from him anymore. Just like that. He collected his box and she never saw him or heard from him again.

Until the frantic phone calls from his sister and later from his lawyer two days ago.

“Miss Yardeni?” the feminine voice brought her back to her bleak present. She raised her eyes towards the graceful woman in mufti who smiled brightly at her. “I am Irina, I will take you to the person you wish to visit.” Her tone was polite but Iris could not help detect in it a hint of pity. She was the Jewess who got knocked up by an Arab, perhaps breaking one the most entrenched taboos in the Israeli society. And furthermore, that Arab was also a terrorist, which should add pity points from that pretty Russian woman. Her uncle bristled from his armchair, his elbows poised to push him upwards if needed. She shook her head in silent warning and smiled sweetly at the woman. “Thank you,” she said as she stood up.

She followed the woman through a long corridor with metal doors on one side. She could hear noise from inside, but nothing intelligible, so she pressed on, her thoughts in turmoil. She was going to see Yoss, her child’s father, her most significant relationship and the cause of the biggest heartbreak she’d ever been through.

The anteroom she was asked to wait in, with its mild lighting and pale walls, reminded her nothing of a jail. She’d somewhat expected something far more sinister, perhaps not a dungeon and oubliettes, but definitely not this bland room.

A young man – shaved head, earpiece with wire running down to his sleeveless and multi pocketed vest – appeared and asked her for her name. He nodded and told her to follow him to a door at the far end. Heart thumping loud in her chest, she crossed the door he held open for her and peered in. she saw a metal desk behind which sat a slumped man with a wrist manacled to it.

“You are not to talk about his arrest or his interrogation; is that clear?” asked the man she was convinced was one of Yoss’ interrogators. “I will be listening and you can talk of your private life all you want. But if you stray off course towards the subjects I prohibited, I am stopping this interview and I don’t care how much political pressure you may bear on me.”

She nodded absently, her eyes riveted to the man who, hearing the door open, had lifted his head. And behind the shaved head and the thick beard, the dark circles under the hurting eyes was Yoss. He saw her and slowly his expression changed, a smile was forming on his lips, but then froze and turned into a scowl.

The young man, she supposed he was some sort of minder, who through bad manners or orders had not given his name, sat on a chair at the far end of the room, his eyes watchful.

She paced slowly, as if reluctant to reach the empty chair facing Yoss. A line from song by her favorite singer popped into her head, “one day you would leave me, your legs in shackles.” How fitting, she reflected, except it was his arm that was shackled.

Yoss was impassive, his gaze following every one of her moves, from the sudden twitch where her child was kicking and the protective hand on her belly, to her slumping on her seat, as if the weight of the world was resting on her frail shoulders. His gaze kept boring at her, his mouth unsmiling, his silence deafening in her ears.

“Yoss,” she began, then changed her mind. She looked at him, studying the face that had filled and was now partially hidden by a thick beard. She noticed, with a certain sadness, a few white hairs on his chin. “Yusuf! This is your name, isn’t it?” she craned her neck to better study him and was rewarded but the glint in his eyes when she called him by the name his mother gave him.

“Why are you here?” he asked. She noticed again with a twinge of sadness, that his Hebrew now had a noticeable accent.

Wasn’t it obvious? She asked herself with utter disbelief. Was he being obtuse? Or was it another manifestation of his newfound patriotism, perhaps even newfound religion. Suddenly, the past six months since his disappearance, the anxiety, the worries, the longing, the fear, everything came up, engulfing her in a white hot rage against this man whom she once trusted and loved.

“I came here to tell you that you are an asshole. A complete asshole who threw away his life for a doubtful sense of belonging to a persecuted minority.” she pushed herself up and with her fists on the desk that separated them she leaned forward. “You have – had, a life. You had me, you had a great job and we had a future. At least I thought so. And then you left without a word. To do what? What were you planning to do? Restore Palestine to what it was in 1917?  Even if it came to pass, I would still be here.” She was sixth generation in this land and her ancestors had left their Caucasian lands long before that.

He sat there, impassive, his cold stare studying her. The minder was listening but she didn’t care. She straightened, her hands rubbing away the pain in her lower back. And when their stares met briefly, he quickly shifted his eyes. She smiled with contempt. “Look at you, playing the poor persecuted Arab. A normal, middle class life was not for you, was it? And to think that you were once a peace activist. Now you are a terrorist who would blow me or my child.”

The mention of the word “child” brought a spark to his eyes and he shifted in his seat.

“Is this my child?” He asked finally, with a soft voice and the shade of a smile in his deep brown eyes.

She looked at him contemptuously and shrugged her shoulders, not bothering to answer.

“I am sorry, Iris. I don’t regret what I did, but I do regret not knowing about the child,” he said, his tone sorrowful.

“So why did you run away? And on the day I was supposed to tell you.”

His face hardened. “I don’t have to tell you what I think of Zionists or even Israeli Jews, and it became too much to bear. The things your people do to my people are beyond imagination. But you know what was the worst? Not the refugees in their camps, not the villagers being surrounded by rabid settlers, not the vast prison you made of Gaza, no. What undid us, and by “us” I mean Iris Yardeni, heiress of the vast Yardeni fortune and Yusuf Haddad, the famous criminal lawyer .”

Iris was intrigued. She paced along the width of the desk. “Are you going to tell me what was so wrong between us?”

“What made it impossible to stay with you one more day was that I learned something from my mother, something I could not ignore. Did I ever tell you that my family is from Joani?”

Joani was the former name of Rosh Pina, a small old town very near Rishonia where much of the family’s land was. “I figured it when you mentioned my family grabbing your family’s land.”

“My mother never spoke about it. I vaguely knew were originally from the galilee, but nothing concrete. Recently she started reminiscing, and told me about the many dunams of land they had and what they grew on them. I started investigating what happened to this land and guess what?”

She had a chilly inkling that she could guess. Somehow, the land had ended in the possession of her family. “You know what it feels to know that I was seeing someone whose family robbed mine and made me an exile in my own land?”

“Family?” she spat. She patted her bulging stomach vigorously. ”This is your family! This is the future, not some pipe dream about a lost family fortune. Do you realize that this baby will inherit everything? Your land, my land, his land.”

He leaned forward, his face eager. “Is it a son?”

“Yes, a son,” she said sadly. “It could have been your son, too. Our son, but you wasted your chance. This is a good bye, Yoss.”

He nodded slowly, his face thoughtful. “What are you going to call him?” he asked.

She picked her bag and shouldered it. “Canaan,” she said and turned to go.

-The End-

Alf

Posted in Fiction, Short stories, Uncategorized with tags , on November 24, 2012 by jeanaboulafia

The arrival of the first real alien from space to our planet was not as Hollywood would us believe; we remember ET and Independence Day and it was nothing like that.

Alf – we called him Alf  in honor of the sitcom that was popular during our childhood,. as we never knew his name – arrived to our planet and surprised us all, or perhaps we surprised ourselves.

Alf came from an obscure star some light-years away that we, those who lived through those times, were not even aware of. In our charts it is just a number. To Alf, of course it was home.

He landed unceremoniously in some desert spot in Yellowstone, of all places, in a cold day in late September when winter had started early and a thin layer of snow was covering the ground.

No one saw the landing, of course and none of the various agencies had detected its arrival. When questioned later, NASA could not produce any evidence of the landing. Even their ultra sensitive radars had not sounded the alarm.

Nevertheless, he suddenly appeared to a group of hikers, they were a dozen and were later known as the apostles. A few of them had had enough sense to capture the moment on their cell phones and from then on, everything was recorded for posterity.

The first to spot him was a man called Eugene Longbow – you all saw him on the countless interviews and TV shows he and the other apostles had appeared on – who was hiking with his group of friends. “He was sitting by a fire, all by himself, and even from far away I could smell the smoke and the meat he was roasting” he would say later when recounting the meeting. “And when he saw me – I was walking faster than the rest of my mates; he rose up and approached me.”

Within eight minutes, four movies were sent to the Net and reached a total of 285 Facebook friends, 612 Twits and Yahoo scored a modest 52. These numbers, reaching their contacts, would reach further thousands, whom in turn would become myriads and then went viral. Google was fast to react. It shifted one of its satellite cameras over the area and within an hour millions were watching this curious encounter.

And what we saw, those of us who were tuned or had been alerted that something really weird was happening, was a short man with long black hair and a scraggly beard, wearing skins and furs holding a long obsidian tipped spear in his hand.  The shaking images showed a circle of stones around a fire on which a large chunk of meat was roasting; a wooden bow and a leather arrow quiver scattered on the snow. Rosalyn Scheer, one of the apostles, later would testify that the sight was so incongruous that she instinctively started filming the event. “At first, I thought he was just a lonely camper, but there was no tent, no vehicle and the area was totally deserted. And then, Eugene, who was way ahead of the rest of us, approached him.”

Alf rose from his fire and faced Longbow, then he reached for his bag and offered him a handful of the most exquisite arrowheads ever seen on this planet. Further, he retrieved various Stone Age implements. Adzes, needles, fire stones; everything crafted to perfection. When those artifacts were later examined, they appeared to be very much like other artifacts found in the area.

Longbow later recollected that the man looked utterly surprised. “He had intelligent eyes and it was clear to me that he wasn’t afraid of us. But he did look surprised. He kept checking my clothes, my hunting knife and everything my companions who had joined us possessed.” Later, we found out why.

The language he spoke was unfamiliar, but his appearance reminded everyone of a prehistoric man. He was short of stature, very muscled and tanned, his black hair flowing to his back and his high, tattooed cheek bones and aquiline nose gave him a distinct North American look, what with the furs and hides, the long spear with the finely chiseled black stone head tied with ligaments to a long, wooden shaft and the bow and arrows on his back, he cut the very picture of the Noble Savage.

As it happened Eugene Longbow grandparents – Lakota and Cheyenne – had spoken to him in their own native languages and he listened carefully to the man’s words. “I think he said ‘home’,” he announced to his stunned friends. “I think he speaks a very old Native language.” And when the savage motioned them to follow him, Longbow guessed that he wanted to show them his home. They followed him, exchanging curious stares among themselves.

At this point, the media showed up; helicopters and cars were dispatched to cover this odd encounter between a dozen young Americans and a man who seemed to have emerged straight from the Stone Age.  The world watched the speared man lead the young Americans towards what Longbow understood as “home”, a short distance away.

And there was the most unexpected sight one could imagine in association with this strangely wild man: a white translucent sphere sixty feet across hovering slightly above the ground.

The image of these young people standing in awe in front of the bizarre craft and the skin wearing savage are engrained in our collective memory. People would ask each other where they were when Alf met the apostles. In those minutes, the world was silent. Wars stopped briefly as fighters tuned their phones to the news of this strange craft and its even stranger owner; factories stopped, and even an execution in Texas was postponed (but later of course resumed and brought to its grisly end). The appearance of that giant sphere, and the manner in which it floated effortlessly, gave the whole scene a surrealistic taste. There was this….caveman next to the whitish contours of that perfect geometrical shape that was at least as exotic as the man itself.

One moment he was next to it, and the next he was gone. An opening appeared and a blinding light flooded the area and when the strong light subsided, Alf was gone. The twelve, visibly shaken, but still filming the event, poked the sphere, pushed against it, patted it, but the sphere would not budge nor open.

At the same speed that Alf had disappeared he reappeared without his spear, his arms bulging with more trinkets. Ceramics pots, stone jewelry, stone axes and arrowheads, which he deposited at the feet of Longbow.

And the scenario repeated itself and Alf disappeared again.

Then the authorities came. First, two rangers from the nearby station, carrying the bleeding carcass of a buffalo on the roof of their ATV, which they halted brutally at the sight of the giant, hovering sphere. By this time, with all the cameras from the helicopters above and the gathering of the news crews, the feed was continuous and the detail incredible. On our TV’s, on our computer monitors, on our tablets and laptops, on our smartphones and from giant public screens, we could see those rangers first questioning the group – and apparently accusing them of the illegal hunting of the buffalo –  then storming the sphere, banging on its walls, shouting for the savage to get out.

The sphere ignored them, adding to their initial frustration at having found a slain protected animal. It even ignored the shots, first fired in the air, then squarely at it. The bullets seemed to disappear into the sphere, but left no visible traces.

This was the moment we understood the magnitude of what was happening here because at the moment those two rangers shot at the sphere and their bullets just vanished told us that we were dealing with something not from our world.

Then the real authorities came in.

Longbow and the apostles, were snatched by the g-men, the area cordoned off and declared off limits by land or air. War planes were dispatched to patrol the airspace above it, while an army of scientists and technicians established camp in the narrow perimeter.

The sphere ignored that, too. From time to time, a probe would materialize above it and go on its way, too quick for any plane that might try to follow it. Even radar was too slow for those round, car-size objects flying about the planet, never colliding with anything, never even coming in contact of any sort with anything human.

We had been met by an alien however ridiculous the notion might be.

The presence of this sphere in Yellowstone sparked a fierce debate in the world. The USA was immediately accused by North Korea and Iran of harboring nefarious designs towards the “peace loving citizens of the world” by “harboring dangerous elements of suspicious origins” while in Washington, the capital, some congressmen accused their government of being in collusion with the aliens in order to  “subvert our glorious constitution”. The Guardian in London published an editorial which asked “whether there was a limit to the imperialism of the USA, both on Earth and in space?”

While the political and international debate over that sphere was raging in every capital of the world, a great deal of research was being made – by an international consortium of scientists hastily assembled to  deflect the growing criticism about America’s role in this affair – on the sphere which never wavered more than a couple of feet here or there. And after a month of recriminations across the major capitals, the scientists came to the sad conclusion that they didn’t know anything more than they did when they started their research. The sphere was impenetrable. They bombarded it with all sorts of rays, X, Gamma and the devil knows what else but the sphere remained oblivious to their efforts.

The artifacts that Alf had given the apostles were taken and examined and were found to be synthetic, although we were unable as yet to identify the materials. The artifacts, widely published, of course, were of excellent quality and looked genuine enough, but the scientist kept insisting that there was something there that suggested they were manufactured rather than fashioned.

With the temporary disappearance of the apostles, taken away – some said to Roswell, the focus shifted to Alf. There were enough pictures for the analysts to build a picture of the mysterious caveman everybody supposed was hiding in that mysterious sphere. He was 5’6″, weighed 180 lbs. and was definitely a homo sapiens. The artifacts he left situated him ten to fifteen thousand years ago. Linguists and philologists after delving on the few words Alf had exchanged with the group and were captured for posterity, were unanimous. Some of the words the savage had uttered, they said, could be old forms of words used by Native Americans. This observation alone sent the diplomatic world reeling under the onslaught of Russia and China who accused the US of conspiracy against the democratic world and the will of the people by not only forbidding access to the sphere to other nations, but by also claiming full rights to it by spreading rumors that the savage was a Native American. A Russian newspaper claimed that the cheekbone tattoos on the savage bore resemblance to tattoos drawn on some Inuit tribes in Siberia. The UN claimed responsibility for it and everyone assumed it belonged to anybody, but Alf himself. It was chaos.

The presence of the sphere, and what it represented – a first real extra terrestrial contact – opened a big debate that was based on those few minutes of freedom Alf had had with the apostles, now released from confinement and gaining international fame for being the only ones who actually spoke to an extra terrestrial. We agonized over question that went from the banal – what is the color of his eyes? – to the profound – where did he come from? And why a savage looking man? Spears and arrows? Come on, the people said. This is crazy, a sphere so mysterious that a whole army of scientists probing it to death and caming up with zilch, and a man straight out from an anthropology museum together? And where was he? What was he doing? Experts surmised he was spying on us, but you didn’t need to be an expert to know that. Any fool could see the daily probes taking off and landing.

Alf’s arrival also sparked a big debate in the world’s religious establishments. There were those who chose to attribute the arrival to their prophecies, others brandished the sphere as Satanic. The Jews claimed it was a sure sign of the impending arrival of the Messiah, the Moslems wanted nothing to do with it, claiming it blasphemy, while the Pope, quite prudently, noted that God ruled the universe, therefore He was also that creature’s God. Besides, didn’t the symbolic number of twelve apostles remind the world of Christ’s apostles? After all, God did act in mysterious ways. The Jews promptly retorted that the twelve symbolized the twelve tribes of Israel and that Alf was no other than King David. The Muslims threatened to send an army of suicide bombers to blow up the sphere. When a famous Imam dared suggest that the hovering sphere was like Mohammed’s coffin, hovering between earth and heavens, he was brutally murdered as a warning to other blasphemers.

Those months, when Alf was away, called by the media “the Alf Festival”, saw an explosion of “Alf” phenomena. With his mysterious disappearance, the world curiosity reached a peak of enormous proportions. Facebook pages sporting pictures – obviously photoshopped – of the alien in various poses filled the Net. Playmate, the magazine, even portrayed him naked in a sexy pose; scores of restaurants called “Alf” and serving buffalo meat sprouted like mushrooms after the rain. Cartier released a gold jewelry collection with the main theme being the artifacts Alf has left. There were Alf parties, Alf costumes for Halloween and even Alf in the guise of Santa Claus. Both Time and Newsweek magazines elected Alf “alien of the year”. Earth was enamored with the alien who lived like a hermit in his white sphere.

And when the interest in the mysterious sphere started to wan, after all there was always a crisis in Washington, a flood in Bangladesh or a famine in Africa, and the camp of scientists who after three months had discovered nothing new started to thin, Alf reappeared in front of one of the guards extended a hand smiled broadly. “How do you do, sir?’ he asked smoothly.

That moment is lost, but the young soldier on guard became instantly famous. At first he had no idea who was the short, muscled man with the jet black hair smoothed back, and wearing a white coverall that seemed to be made of the same white translucent material as the sphere who had emerged from in a flash of blinding light.

“I am who you call Alf, or the Savage, or the Alien.” He pointed a thumb towards the sphere. “I was there, and now I want you to take me to your leaders.”

The private, Lowell Gregory, swore repeatedly that Alf had used those exact words. Take me to your leaders. Just like Hollywood had predicted. Gregory was dumbfounded. His throat went suddenly dry – these accounts were published later on the net and became a matter of public record – and the m16 in his hand shook uncontrollably.

“Hey, you are not a Muslim, are you?” Alf asked pleasantly. “I hear they want to kill me.”

Private Gregory was not a Muslim and had no wish to kill Alf, but he had no idea who ‘his leaders” were so he called the sergeant on duty, who called his officer who called his. Eventually some fifteen officers came running, led by a two star general.

Alf was immediately surrounded and fifteen guns were pointed at him, but he didn’t seem to worry. “You are General Delmar,” he said to the stunned general. “General Antonio Velasquez y Maria Delmar?”

General Delmar, known to his friends as Tonio or Dell, was stunned, as he later recalled. “It was like he could read me like an open book.”

“I will speak to the people of this planet,” Alf went on, seemingly unaware of the effect of his words on the people surrounding him. “You will hear from me,” he added and he disappeared again in a flash of light.

The news spread around the globe at the speed of a prairie fire after a long drought. There was not a TV channel that didn’t broadcast the news, a newspaper that didn’t run the story or a blogger that didn’t comment, speculate or prophesized the content of Alf’s address to the humanity. How would he do it? In which language? And, more importantly, what would he say? Would he announce an invasion? A cure for cancer? An end to all wars? Would he reveal to all the secret of the “Sole Meuniere?”

And then, after two days of uncertainty and nail biting Alf appeared to us. To each and every one of us. Suddenly, without any warning, every TV and every radio, every Smartphone, every advertising screen and DVD device came to life and the figure of Alf, standing casually in front of his sphere appeared. Needless to say, every activity stopped. Every housewife in the world switched off the stove; every soldier secured his weapon; every plane landed and every car stopped. Prison riots stopped as if by miracle, court sessions were cut short, peasants stopped their field work.  It was said later that the only surprised people were the north Koreans who, until this moment, had had no idea who Alf was.

“Earthlings,” he said, and some five billions watchers and listeners heard him, each in his own language. How did he do it remains a mystery, like so much of his world. A partial explanation was given later.  “My name is –” and here came a series of sounds that made dogs howl and cats dig their talons in their owners laps – “and I come from “– again the same reaction from our pets. “My race has been colonizing planets for a very long time. Our scouts discovered your planet about sixty thousand years ago and it was deemed fit for colonization. The weather was temperate and the dominant species, an erect, bi pedal and tool making, was spreading around the globe but was very small in numbers.

“This planet was just a number to us and was put on our list of world to be colonized in the future. Our race is old, very old. We mastered space travel and DNA manipulation which we use to reproduce local species we find across the universe.

“Some fifteen thousands of your years ago, a probe returned to this planet to compare the situation with the data we had collected earlier. We found a world a little more populated, but basically consisting of small groups of people, hunting and gathering and we decided to send a first batch of the people we would create from the DNA samples we collected from your planet and which we keep,” he pointed towards the sphere, hovering slightly behind him, “there, in the sphere, in the form of DNA strands which I would develop into full human beings.”

Ensconced in his white suit, as if to conform to a certain idea, us humans have of an alien from space, the tattoos on his cheeks gone, he spoke to us, standing stiffly,  his face emotionless and his gaze impenetrable. But the weirdest thing was, and people all over confirmed it, was that we could hear him in our heads, not through our ears, and each of us heard him in the language he or she was most comfortable with.

“It took thirteen thousands of your years for the probe to return home, the data processed, a program set up and the return trip. I was part of a program, a DNA sample used to create a human body. Genetically speaking, I am one of your ancestors, specifically made from a strand of DNA taken from the population in this continent which was, at the time, spreading slowly through it. We chose this place you call Yellowstone for its geysers and altitude.”

The world was silent. There was nothing else to do. Every TV, every radio, every home page of any site on the net was focused on Alf. The loudspeakers in Pyongyang stopped talking of the Great Leader and broadcast Alf’s speech in full. The tam tams in the jungles relayed Alf’s words and every printer in the world printed it in real time.  Even the Grand mosque in Mecca relayed the words in Koranic Arabic. It was eerie.

“But if my body is human. My brain is one of my race’s, and without wishing to insult you, but the IQ systems you human use to measure intelligence doesn’t begin to measure mine. I was brought up with the data collected by the probe. I was taught the languages of the people we were most likely to meet and mingle with when we landed, the skills needed to teach the newcomers in order to survive and thrive, hence my gift of stone-age artifacts to Mr. Longbow and company. It doesn’t mean I am a savage, like some media portrayed me.”

Here his face broke into a wide grin. It was the first time we saw Alf smile and display a perfect set of teeth. “In fact,” he continued, “like, every one of my race, I am telepathic. Not as you imagine,” he hasten to add, “but sufficiently to read you like an open book. During the months I was in my sphere, I studied you. You and your planet. There is not one museum I didn’t visit, either through my probes or simply by reading the people visiting them. There is no architectural site I haven’t been through in order to pierce the mystery of the Human race. I know your world better than any of your scientists, your history better than Barbara Tuchman and Ibn Battuta, Josephus and Livvy.”

The list of people he quoted by name is too long to repeat, but it included historians from all known cultures, from China, through Japan to Greece and more. This display of knowledge of our world, with him casually dropping names from our collective history astounded us.

Alf looked straight to us, his face impassible once more. “I said ‘the mystery of the Human race’ because you are one. The universe is teeming with Earth-like planets and many many of them produced a dominant tool making species. But we have never seen a species taking that big a technological leap as you have. In thirteen thousands revolutions of your sun, you have grown from a sparsely populated world with a collection of small tribes, into a race that dominates the world and is eating the planet. When our probe surveyed this continent, half of it was covered with a thick forest that has now disappeared. Your rain making forests are being cut at an alarming rate, but this is not even the worse.

“We found a pastoral world and sent in our people to live here with you, having the same tools and technologies as you did, because our methods of colonization resemble nothing those of yours. You build things, we transform them.  And after learning everything I could about your race and its history, I decided to abort our colonization program on this planet.”

There was a collective sigh that encompassed the whole planet. Was it relief? Was it a sense of loss? I guess it was both.

“You history is a violent one and it was never our intention to bring our children, for these creatures in  the sphere waiting to be brought to life are our children, into this world of greed and violence, of pollution and of illogical religions. You killed and continue to kill on grounds of religious intolerance. Many species are religious but no one is as fanatic as yours and all take it in account that their views are personal choices and nothing more. It took me time to understand the concept of the crusades and of jihad. Also, you have jails and zoos and treat other species abominably, not to mention how you treat earth itself.

“These are the reasons I shall not wake up the other guides who, like me were trained to live on this planet like your ancestors used to, hunting and gathering and being happy, and together we shall not proceed to create those people here. Thankfully a mission never goes out without a plan B and I shall now return to my sphere and leave for another planet that will support our colony. Those abound in the universe.”

Then, with a nasty smile and looking straight at us, he said, “One last word, Earthlings! God doesn’t exist.”

With these words he turned around. The familiar white flash of light burst out of the sphere and he disappeared. A short while later. The sphere rose in the air and we never saw it again.

The End

Sacrebleu!

Posted in Fiction, Short stories, Uncategorized, Writings with tags , , on September 1, 2012 by jeanaboulafia

André Roux, a man in his early thirties, aimed the hammer at the tiny nail head and struck. The hammer, missing the nail head, struck a thumb instead.

“Sacrebleu!” he exclaimed loudly and  sucked his bruised thumb.

The word had been a complete surprise to him. He didn’t know where it came from. Nobody used Sacrebleu anymore and he certainly had never used it except in jest.

And yet, the word was worthy. It was a good French word that went into disuse because fashions had changed, because there was a front of foreign languages anxious to leave their imprint on the language of Voltaire, and because people were lazy. It was easier to say “shit”, a word in English, not less than saying Sacrebleu. But Sacrebleu was so Gallic! It evoked another period, when things were not so hectic and people took the time to swear properly.

He ran cold water over his thumb, thinking, that it would be nice to say Sacrebleu instead of, merde, for example.

That night he dreamed he was a pirate and said”sacrébleu” a lot. He woke up with a sense of satisfaction seldom felt. Sacreblau, but i slept soooooooo well, he thought happily.He knew he wasn’t using the word in the right context, but he felt that he needed compensation for all those years he hadn’t used the word and every opportunity seemed appropriate.

The next time he used that word was when he crossed the street a few days later. The light was green for pedestrians and he was halfway through enge paved road when a cyclist almost knocked him off his feet.

“Sacrebleu,” he exclaimed loudly, “but this man nearly knocked me over”

People looked at him oddly, except for an old man whose lips twisted in a small smile and who nodded his head in sympathy. He seemed to agree with the use of the word and its proper context.

The word definitely rolled off the tongue.

Next, he started looking into graffiti materials, and when he had found a washable paint, he started selecting spots for them. And come the night,a furtive figure all in black, would sneak out of his building and cycle to the location he’d selected earlier.

Just the word Sacrebleu in big neat letters that contrasted with their neighbors on the wall. He managed two or three locations a night, entering them in his phone. He was slowly but surely spreading the word, in neat letters and washable paint.

One day, as he walked past one of his graffiti, he noticed that someone had painted a small thumb up icon used on facebook to denore likeness. He was both impressed by the idea and flattered. Impressed that someone would take the trouble to bring painting material to his graffiti, and flattered because whoever he our she was, they liked his work.

And as he expended his coverage of neat sacrebleus (all washable), he noticed two things: the first was that no one bothered to wash them away, the second was the appearance of the ‘like’ icon in each of them. He recognized the hand and it was all the same. Someone was following him!

But then, he reasoned ti himself, that someone had not turned him in, nor had manifested any personal interest in him.

One day, an article called “Capitaine Sacrebleu” appeared in the culture section of a national magazine, with pictures of his graffiti. Who is that knight of the night who reminds us of earlier, gentler days? the article asked rhetorically. Instead of his picture, there was a black silhouette.

From then on, he wasn’t the only fighter. Next to sacrebleu, words like morbleu, zut and even a diantre or two appeared on walls everywhere. He enjoyed his anonymous notoriety and when he walked the streets of the city, he looked at the other people and asked himself if anyone had any inkling that he was Captain Sacrebleu.

And, he noticed with surprise mingled with pleasure that the “likes” kept following him faithfully.

One night, he decided to find out who was his stalker. Now and then he heard someone swear with “his” word and he knew he was progressing.

Sacrebleu, it felt good. And tonight, who knew, he might meet his biggest fan. Or his nemesis, he thought gloomingly. He hurried to a spot he had selected earlier, a place where he could vanish from prying eyes and observe who was adding the little “likes” to his messages. The wait could be long, but curiosity was stronger than lack of sleep.

He didn’t wait long.  A bike appeared in the dimly lit street and stopped in front of his last message and a slight figure discarded the bike, ran to the graffiti and with one hand sprayed the wall while the other hand held what appeared to be a stencil of some sort. The figure ran back to the bike and mounted it.

He sprinted out of his hiding and stood in the middle of the deserted street, his arms extended forward  “Stop!” he shouted and the bike swerved violently to avoid him and, under André’s  shocked look, crashed on the pavement, it’s rider with it.  The rider rose from the ground, wiping dust from the tight clothes.

“Why did you do that for?” the figure asked in a rather nasty tone of voice. The voice, the small stature, the tight fitting clothes, all gave André the distinct impression it was a woman, impression which was confirmed when she removed her helmet and a shock of jet black hair spilled out of it.  In the dim light, he could see dimples and white teeth and the black holes that were her eyes. Instead of replying, André said simply, as if it was self evident, “I like your ‘likes’,”

“I am glad you don’t hate them. I wonder how you’d react then,” she said, her voice heavy with sarcasm. She bent to pick her bike, but André was quicker. “Here,” he said, smiling and extended a hand. “I am André Roux.”

“I am Josette,” she said, without extending her hand. She studied his lanky frame with a neutral expression.

“Why are you following me?” he asked, his eyes on her shapely body under the tight fitting riding clothes. She had nice legs, he noticed.

She shrugged. “You are Captain Sacrebleu,” she stated in a flat voice, but under the feeble street light he could see the shadow of a smile.

“This is a media invention. I am just Andre Roux.  So why are you following me, apart from the obvious?”

“I admire what you do,” she said softly, and then, her voice rose as she added, “And I am not following you. I am following your graffiti. I like what they represent.”

Andre was very pleased. Professional curiosity, however, took over. “What are you using, for your little likes?” he asked a bit awkwardly. Now that she was standing, the light from the nearby streetlamp showed clear eyes, contrasting wildly with the jet black hair. She is definitely pretty, he thought as he showed her his can of spray.  “I use washable spray.”

“Nice, environmental conscious, I like that.” She fished a small packet from a pocket and shook it in the air. “A can of spray, a small template and quick legs,” She laughed, a soft laugh that made Andre want to tell a joke, just for the pleasure of hearing her laugh. He was smitten, he realized with an inward grin.

At this moment, a siren blared, red and blue lights flashed in front of them and as they turned to look, a police car stopped, two doors opened a split seconds later and two gendarmes burst out of them.  “Stay as you are,” one of them barked while the other hurried towards them. “What have you got there? Let me see!” said the hurrying gendarme, a little out of breath. He grabbed Josette’s bag and André’s can of washable spray. “What have we here?” he asked, obviously rhetorically as he proceeded to enunciate the items one by one. A bag, a can of paint and a template, another can of paint. Then, suspicious he lit a powerful torch and directed it first to the wall André had scrawled his message earlier then  to André’s face, blinding him in the process. “Hey, Raymond,” he called loudly. “Come and see whose collar we just nabbed.”

“Sacrebleu!” said André and Josette in unison, then laughed together.

“In the name of the law,” he said gravely, “I arrest both of you on suspicion of defacing public surfaces.”

Their bikes secured –  the policemen had been gracious enough to bring André’s bike and lock it together with Josette’s  , they were led to the police car that stood with its doors ajar, more appropriate for an hostage situation than the apprehension of two paint sprayers.

However, as soon as the driver reported to his commissariat that he was in possession of “Captain Sacrebleu”, the airwaves flooded and the chatter reminded André a band of chattering monkeys.  And the word Sacrebleu every few seconds.

In the car, Josette and André talked, oblivious of the outer world. She confessed that she had followed him a couple of times before and that she chanced upon him from the beginning as she liked to ride late at night, when the streets were empty and they were, after all, sort of neighbors, she living a few streets away from his own.

At the police station, they were treated as minor celebrities and were made to wait for the inspector in his office, away from the drunks and disorderly that were crowding the main waiting room. Coffee was served and more than one policeman, his cell phone in hand and a shy smile, asked if his picture could be taken with “captain Sacrebleu”.

“So this is what fame is,” he commented after the third picture. Josette looked at him with adoring eyes.

Eventually, an inspector came and took André to an interview room; there he offered him a seat and yet another cup of coffee. On the desk there was a file and André’s can of spray-paint.

“What are you accusing me of?” André shot as soon as he was sitting.

The inspector took the file from the desk and opened it and read slowly, while fixing André with a stern look every few seconds.

“Those who arrested you didn’t tell you?” he asked as he closed the file. He leaned back on his chair, as if gauging the man sitting across his desk.

“But they assumed I am this captain Sacrebleu,” André replied hotly. “They have no proof!”

“Come, come, Monsieur, you know perfectly well it is not true. You were caught on the spot with these.” He picked the paint spray can from the table and waved it in the air. “Our forensic labs can analyze this, you know.  To a degree that would convince any court of justice.”

“Sacrebleu,” André swore softly. “You are going to throw the book at me?”

The inspector shrugged. “I doubt it.” He inspected the spray paint closely. “Washable, huh? This would go in your favor. I imagine you will be required to clean up walls or something like that. I would not worry unduly.” He fixed André with a sympathetic look.  “You know, France has always been proud of its political openness. What you did was political and in France, we don’t punish political activists.”

Andre recalled one of his university professors that had claimed that “everything was political”, and now he understood the real meaning of the phrase. What he was doing with his graffiti, was sending a message to the French people, a reminder of simpler times, when life was less hectic, when words were important. Not SMS words, not sound bytes, but words to relish, to use to beautify the thought.

“What is happening with Josette?” he asked finally, when the silence in the room started to weigh.

The inspector picked the phone and punched a number, spoke a few words and replaced the set. “Your accomplice, Miss Noiret will be released shortly. As will you. We are waiting for the typists to finish the deposition which you will sign, and then you will be sent home.”

Miss Noiret, thought André. Josette Noiret.  Sacrebleu, it was a nice name. Then a thought came to him: Josette Roux. How did it sound?

The inspector smiled at him. “You seem pensive. Is it, perchance the mention of Miss Noiret?”

“Yes,” André admitted with a shy smile. “My ”accomplice’ as you put it. We only met minutes before your men arrested us.”

“Well, now you have common memories. It is the foundation of a good relationship,” said the inspector philosophically. He got up on his feet and extended a hand. “I wish you all the best and we will be in touch about your case. You are going to be famous, Monsieur Roux. Use your fame well.”

So why am I being dragged to court, André thought bitterly, but he stood up and shook the inspector’s hand.

Outside, Josette was waiting and her smile, when she saw him emerge from the interview room was so bright that it warmed the cockles of his heart. Very naturally, he offered her his arm and both left the station with jaunty steps, envious eyes following them.

Outside the station, in the cold night, waited a large truck with a dish on its roof and Rene Brouillard, the reporter who had written the piece about captain Sacrebleu was standing on the pavement with a microphone in hand. He shoved it in André’s face. “Captain Sacrebleu, what do you have to say to the people of France?” he asked with his notorious deep voice.

Andre pushed the microphone aside. “Leave us alone,” he snarled. “Because of you, the police are after me. Are you happy?”

At that moment, a police car stopped next to the truck and one of the policeman who had arrested them got out and opened the back door with a flourish. “This way, Captain,” he called. Then he drove them where their bikes had been locked.

“Shall we ride?” he offered gallantly after he had opened the lock and freed the bikes.

“Why not, we are neighbors,,, after,” she replied with a wide smile.

But they were not alone, the truck that had waited at the police station had materialized behind them and drove slowly in the desert city.

They chatted all the way to her address, then sat on the porch, exchanging life stories. He told her of his job as a pharmacist, “Well,” he’d said, “more like a clerk isn’t it? Filling prescriptions for maladies no one would have in the first place if they were not so addicted to modern life. A trained monkey could do it.”

She told him about the training center she worked in as a trainer and was addicted to touring the city at night. “Three, four times a week I at midnight, one o’clock I go out and just ride and take pictures. Tonight I didn’t have my camera.”

And all the while, the truck was spying on them. For the fun, when he finally decided it was time they went home, the bowed towards the truck and even curtsied. After that, he kissed her lips lightly, but with a hint of desire in the way his lips sought hers.

It was an extremely happy André roux that rode home that early morning, amid the first delivery trucks of the day.

The news of the capture and subsequent release from custody of Captain Sacrebleu hit the media with the force of  a hurricane. For lack of real interest, Sacrebleu’s capture, appeared on all TV and radio channels, and even the national newspapers reported it on their front pages. It also sparked a national debate on the nature of language, culture, life styles and choices. And behind it stood the question of national identity. “Are we a nation of ‘Nik ta mere’ [1]sayers, or are we a nation of ‘Sacrebleu'” sayers?”asked a prominent journalist in one of the newspapers.

And behind that tumult, André was wooing a willing Josette, the two of them trying to maintain a semblance of normality in the mild chaos that their lives had been thrown in. when they went out, they were never alone, followed as they were by an army of reporters and paparazzi photographers.

“Why do you think it is?” she asked him one day when a photographer surprised them sharing a kiss. “Why is that Sacrebleu so important? Why are they making such a big deal?”

Andre thought for a moment, readjusted his clothes and scratched hid head. “Ma foi,” he said after a while, his hand now stroking his pointy chin, “I think this word is an echo from different times. I sense a deep yearning for old values. This world is going too fast and I guess sacrebleu is a symbol of another, kinder time.” He shrugged and saw in her clear eyes a mute understanding.

Their professional lives were turned upside down too. Publicity brought scores of new customers to the pharmacy and Gaston Legros, the owner promoted André to store manager, with all the benefits that stemmed from his new position. Josette, after her pretty face was shown on TV was flooded with a male clientele more intent on looking at her delicious curves than get in shape, but who paid well and it showed in her pay slips.

They decided to move together and the newspapers had a field day: “They Move Together,” claimed one of them while another printed in big letters “Superman and Lois Lane?” They found a big loft and moved in and it was as if they had always lived together, When André stopped scrawling his graffiti, others took his place and the word could be heard everywhere. When the foreign minister, on a visit to a former and now rogue, colony told the local dictator, “Sacrebleu, France will never tolerate that!” banging his fist on the negotiating table, André felt he had won.

When they got affianced, the newspapers screamed “Captain Sacrebleu and Like Engaged!” they had a small reception for parents, both having full sets of, and friends, and with the renewed interest their lives were providing, a large contingent of media.

After a few weeks, André and Josette decided to elope. Neither of them wanted the presence of strangers in their lives and Josette came from a small village, St Francois de l’Aude, population a hundred fifty three men, women and children. They drove all night and were waiting at the tiny mairie for the mayor to arrive and marry them. They waited at the small cafe, drinking espressos and whiling the time away, both of them secure in the knowledge that they were marrying the person the fates had chosen for them.

But when the mayor arrived to the small building, every denizen of the small, picturesque village with its church, the big square lined with plane trees and the obligatory memorial for the wars and the fallen, was present and voices were demanding that the ceremony be held outside, seeing that Josette was kin and were all eager to see her take the man of her life in sight of all the community.

And when the mayor put the sash of his office across his chest and was ready to start the civil ceremony that would unite their lives, a chopping sound could be heard above the square and shortly thereafter, a couple of helicopters hovered over it, blowing leaves everywhere. A hundred fifty five pairs of eyes saw the president of the republic alight from one of them, followed by a group of people. The president’s energetic steps took him straight to the waiting couple.

The president’s secretary made the introductions. Next to the president was the chairman of the Legion d’Honneur nomination committee. “In the name of the republic,” the president intoned and took a box from his secretary’s hands, “I am pleased to present  you, monsieur Roux, the medal of the Legion d’Honneur, in the rank of knight, for the part you took in helping revive a portion of our language we had forgotten about. The French Nation is richer thanks to your effort.”

“Sacrebleu!” said Josette and André in unison and burst out laughing.

The End


[1] Nik ta mere, an expletive chiefly used by populations of north African origin

The Tree That Said Goodbye

Posted in Uncategorized on August 11, 2012 by jeanaboulafia

He stood there for years, in the corner, behind the hedge and in front of the grass. No one in the neighborhood could recall when exactly he had been planted or what kind of tree he was. Its leaves were nondescript and no one had bothered to mark him when it had been planted by a gardener since forgotten.
And as he stood, he watched. People had come and gone in the building in whose front garden he had been planted. There was a tall palm tree towering over him that drew most of the attention and so our tree, which, incidentally, was an almond tree, unassuming as he was, observed.
When he was young, as young as the building itself, he’d been curious about people. Trees and people go a long way and he had even been glad to be a city tree, where life was exciting. But now, after a life of seeing people come and go, with their dogs and cats and kids, he was no longer curious. There wasn’t a dog he would welcome the marking of the territory. Life is boring, then you become firewood.
Then came Zoe. Not alone, of course, but for all he cared, she was alone. She must have been six or seven when she passed by him for the first time, with her arms full of toys, her toothless grin and the dark blond halo that was her hair.
From that moment, the tree stopped watching with bored eyes a world that was in constant motion but never changed. He took a renewed interest in the comings and goings of the people in the building, especially when Zoe’s giggle could be heard from across the glass door that barred the entrance, three steps up from the ground.
He soon learned that Zoe’s father, a serious looking man with receding hair and a fondness for khaki pants, worked for a “hitech” company, that her mother was a teacher and that her brother was a pest. Their dog, “Pavlov”, a mongrel if he ever saw one, gave him the courtesy of a good sniff and a welcoming pee, but had not bothered him much afterwards, but the clumsiness of Ariel (Zoe’s older brother) had, and the many balls that had landed in his branches had been usually followed by a savage shaking or rummaging between his bruised branches with various objects. Even the cats had stopped sleeping on its branches, which was a shame because the crook of his trunk and main branch was a perfect spot for a cat to curl up.
Zoe liked the outdoors and he watched her change from a giggly, toothless girl into an awkward teen and eventually a woman. Her favorite spot for playing was by the tall palm tree, affording him a good view of her games, games he had seen a thousand times being played by other kids, but which had never interested him as much as hers did. The dolls, the prams, the tea parties, he watched them all with an amused look that contrasted with his grimness before she came. When she played with other children, she was always the “queen”, the “princess” just plain leader. And she never had to fight for it, it was always granted gracefully by the other kids.
He did not know the reasons why he took such a fancy to that particular girl. Perhaps it was her way of looking at the world, as if it was such a wonderful place and what an adventure she was having. She was never bitchy or haughty when she played with the other kids in the garden. Other trees were saying the same thing and the palm tree that had the best firsthand knowledge of her activities swore by her.
The almond tree was a loner. Apart from the palm tree, all other trees in the vicinity were fruitless. They were the pretty boys of the tree world. He, a fruit tree, well, potentially a fruit tree, resented being reduced to a mere ornament, and that was the main reason why he had never bothered to bloom. What for?
Zoe started dating and he followed her movements in and out of the building, watching the parades of suitors, in their fancy cars and motor bikes; some even on bicycles and others afoot. Zoe had a way with people but boys in particular fell in droves in front of her. He knew she was in school, and not just by the pretty dress and bag pack he noticed on her way to the bus. A gaggle of friends followed her home now, all giggles and repressed laughter, and the palm tree was now the scene of her love plays, much as she had done when she was a little girl. Now the grass at the feet of the big palm was used for intertwined bodies and meetings of lips. She still giggled, but this one had a different connotation.
Being a tree in human environment as intensive as a modern city, made him often wish the setting was different. It would have been nicer if he lived in Zoe’s garden rather than the building’s, but he was a tree and trees stayed where they were planted. Besides, the reverse of the medal was that his limbs were not being chopped for firewood or lumber. He was therefore content to watch Zoe grow. Her blonde halo had darkened with age and reminded him the dark honey his friends, the bees, made. She had turned into what in human taste was considered beautiful. She still came at odd times and looked at him with these eyes that reminded him of a stormy sky, and he wondered what kind of thoughts were passing through her mind when she looked at him this way. The eyes seemed to ponder.
The years were passing by. His interest in Zoë had not waned. He felt the sap stir in his branches every time she stepped out of the door and as often from cars. Then the cortege of cars stopped and became just one: a small two-sitter. He watched with interest how at first the boy – he had learned the name later – was escorting Zoe to the stair, exchanging quick kisses before a hasty departure; as if the pain of parting with her was too excruciating and the sooner he left the place the better.
The next meeting, they lingered more under the light of the entrance, the kisses were longer, less furtive, and the hands were involved. It wasn’t long before in summer nights they would alight from the little two-sitter and stroll on the grass, she often barefoot, her shoes slung over her shoulder and her teeth gleaming in the darkness, he, Liam, his protecting arm around her shoulders, walking towards the palm tree and lay on the cool grass.
Sometimes, when the wind was right he could hear their whispered giggles and floating words that spoke of mutual devotion. He was ambivalent about her, because it was the human way of leaving the nest once one could fly on one’s own wings, and Zoe was a capable human, even a tree could see that. When he saw her leave the house with a funny hat (square with a tassel!) on her head and a cape around her shoulders, he sensed that she just had made a big step in life. It was strange to think of steps for a tree that hasn’t moved an inch in over thirty years.
When she left for higher education and her visits home became more scarce – it took three whole rings before she returned home, he sank again into his brooding thoughts, wishing he had not been a tree altogether. A bird, a bee, even a dog would have been better. He often looked with contempt at his neighbor, the palm tree, whose fruit, the golden date, was now food for the crows. That tree, that once ruled the desert, was now an eye candy for stupid people who did not have the decency to leave well enough alone. He himself, a glorious but sterile tree, planted in the wrong soil, overshadowed by a giant palm, was useless. There were times when trees were free and grew where they wanted. They had ruled the planet, providing shelter, heat and food for many species, and now he was here, in a place that could have been anywhere. There had been a time, so the tree lore said, when humans worshipped trees. How the mighty have fallen, he reflected sadly, when the subjects of worship of yore became subjects of daily torture. The systematic destruction of trees for human use was akin to a giant slaughterhouse. Paper, timber, firewood, were all words justifying the systematic genocide of his species, the reason trees were being daily sacrificed instead of being sacrificed to. Shade, shelter for animals were nothing against the axe that felled many of his peers.
He was in this dark mood when a police car, lights flashing in the night, stopped by the building and two officers rushed past him, coming shortly back followed by Ariel, his face all scrunched up. The next day Zoë appeared. Although she had lost none of her beauty, as much as the tree could ascertain, she was pale, withdrawn and teary.
The tree could guess what was happening. When police cars and teary people showed up together, it was a tragedy. Then he recalled that Zoë’s parents had left the previous day in the fully loaded company car. The tree had never given much attention to Zoë’s family and now wished he had. Breaking a long habit, he asked around what was going on.
“You won’t like it,” said the palm tree, obviously unaware of the almond’s contempt towards him. “Zoë’s parents were killed in a car crash yesterday.”
The tree knew about death. It hadn’t been the first time death struck one of the building’s dwellers. There had been Dr. Levine, who had a smile as bright as Zoë’s, who had collapsed in front of him, there, just over the hedge; there had been the little boy in the wheelchair, for whom the building’s association had built a ramp to get access; there had been old Mrs. Stark who died peacefully in bed. All had attracted the same crowd of long faced people, in dark clothes and moods.
This time was not different. Zoe appeared in a black dress and her honey colored hair was covered in a black cloth. Her puffy eyes were hidden behind dark glasses and only Liam’s supporting arm held her straight. Ariel, the brother, was weeping silently, and for the first time the tree noticed the resemblance between the siblings.
He pondered about the future. After Dr. Levine had died, his family left the building and another one moved in; after the little boy’s death, his family moved out; and after Mrs. Stark’s death, no one left but someone moved in. That was the way of the world for species that had legs to move. No roots, he thought sarcastically. Would Zoë disappear from his life again? The last three rings had not been easy for him.
The cortege left the building with a wake of mourning people following and it wasn’t until later that day that they returned. They filed into the building and later in the evening, the tree watched as they left in small hushed groups, whispering among themselves, leaving Zoë and Ariel to their grief.
Days and months passed, and Zoë was still there. One spring morning – the crocuses had started blooming; he saw her smiling for the first time since her parent’s death. Her step was springier and her hair seemed to float
Zoe was living alone now. Sometimes she’d come home with a friend, usually a small woman with dark hair and complexion who stayed a couple of hours then left. There was also a skinny girl with braids that came and left, and Liam had disappeared from view.
The trees around him were whispering that Zoë had not recovered from her parent’s death and that Ariel had left to marry far away. The tree pondered. Her demeanor hadn’t been the one of a stricken daughter. Dr. Levine’s daughter, when she had been stricken, had cried her eyes out.
When he saw her next, Zoe was on the phone, laughing, sauntering past the hedge, her hair shimmering in the morning sun. The tree felt good seeing Zoë happy. A hummingbird was doing its aerial acrobatics and bees were buzzing about. For the first time in a long time, he was happy to be a tree. Zoe was happy and all was fine in the world.
Two weeks later Zoë appeared with a bicycle which she chained to the metal rack outside the building. She was wearing tight fitting nylon and the cutest pink helmet, and even an old tree like him could see a picture of beauty and health. The day before, she had given him one of her enigmatic looks, as if asking him the meaning of life.
Then another bike appeared, a white machine ridden by a young man with a mop of red hair and the bluest eyes you could imagine. The tree had heard enough stories, told by thousands of parents and kids at the feet of the palm tree, not to recognize a young knight on a white horse when he saw one.
For it was love. When he compared the glint in her eyes when she flew to her knight’s, her arms outstretched and her smile eclipsing the sun, to her meetings with Liam, he could not avoid the conclusion that this was a different thing. They rode almost every day, and in the evenings he would often come, sometimes staying over, other times both of them going out, only to return much later.
One day, and the summer was at its fiercest heat, when trees and plants yearned for the daily ration of water the – now automatic – sprinklers provided, a van stopped next to the building and started unloading crates and cables and boxes. Zoe met them and showed them the way. And in her tight jeans and checked shirt, her hair in a pony tail, she attracted the men’s stares.
A gardener was busy slicing unruly weeds – a young, unfamiliar face, and one in the dozens if not the hundreds that had served the small garden over the years. He knew that some trees had gardeners for life, people who begat other people to tend to them, generation after generation, until those trees returned their atoms. Trees in farms, trees in oases, productive trees that had respect, he thought longingly. Ah, to be an olive tree in some warm place, with a view of fields and farms. But as much as he tried, the tree could not really imagine living elsewhere. It was only images that every tree knew.
Eventually the van left. That evening people came in, wearing their best outfits – there was a lot of black and women wore high heels – in couples and singles and groups. The name “Zoe” was flying about and it was the general consensus among the neighboring trees and bushes that there was a “bomb” of a party. Zoe had turned twenty five.
White Knight – his name was Ethan, the tree had heard Zoë more than once whisper his name on the phone – appeared, wearing a short sleeved shirt and long slacks and carrying a bunch of flowers in his tanned hands.
That night, while the party boomed on the top floor, the tree brooded. He felt that Zoe’s happiness was a harbinger of things to come. As expert on the weather as any tree, he could not see where the wind was blowing. Was she staying? Was she going? Everything was possible. Many a girl had left the building, only to return a couple of rings later for a visit with a baby in their arms. Would Zoë follow the path? White Knight could be the one, he felt it.
Zoe didn’t leave. Neither did Ethan.
The party lasted long into the night and culminated in a modest display of fireworks. Twenty six rockets shot for the stars, one for each year and an extra one for next year. The tree watched the trails of fire zigzagging in the night sky and he knew Zoë was happy.
The next day, the buzz around the trees said that what had started as a birthday party had ended in an engagement party as Ethan had proposed to Zoë just after the fireworks. A poetic hedge even added that the stone he’d given her, reflecting in her eyes, was brighter than the display of fireworks.
The tree entered a waiting mode. He knew something was bound to happen, but he knew not what. Women married and left their home. That was human tradition.
“Not so,” said a newly planted cypress, “she owns the place.”
And indeed she did. If trees could giggle, the tree would have giggled now. But what tree in front of a building hasn’t seen enough of landlord-tenant scenes, not to grasp the concept of ownership. Without comprehending the legal ramifications, he knew that she could stay if she wanted as she was an owner.
Reality seemed to prove the cypress’ point as Ethan made her home his. The tree would see him leave in the morning, mounted on his white bike and disappear at the next corner; return every evening and park the bike next to Zoe’s. They went out at night and the tree could see that long after they returned, the light shone bright in her – their – bedroom.
By late fall, when the palm tree had spread its golden fruits on the yellowing grass and other trees shed their leaves, a horse drawn carriage entered the street and stopped next to the tree’s building. And through the glass door he saw Zoe, wearing all white, with a veil covering her hair and two maids behind her. Ariel and his wife were there and Zoe and her maids climbed into the open carriage. The others followed by car.
Zoe didn’t return for a month, and when she did, she was tanned and looking glorious. Ethan was with her, looking proprietarily at the building. It’s not that the tree didn’t like Ethan; it was more that Ethan wasn’t Zoë. Now they’d traded their bikes for a street car, a tiny thing easy to maneuver in a congested city, and they left together in the morning, while Zoë returned early in the afternoon. On warm days, she would bring a blanket and lean against the palm tree and read. The almond tree could see her hair spilling from the elastic band shimmering in the afternoon sun, dangling from her shoulder when she bent over, concentrated in her reading.
Winter came with it the rains and winds and he hardly saw Zoe or Ethan, except when they rushed under umbrellas to their car across the street. But these glimpses were enough. Life seemed to return to a familiar pattern, like before Zoë had left.
It lasted for another year. Zoe and Ethan were inseparable. The left together every morning and went out most nights. Friends came and left and often he could see the lights blazing on the top floor, when she gave a party on the large verandah.
One day, as she returned from the grocery store, her arms were laden with plastic bags brimming with groceries, and as she passed by him across the hedge, he saw something unsettling. Her stomach was bulging. Of course, had he bothered to listen to the young cypress, a fount of useless information, he would have known that Zoë was expecting a child.
A child! The tree could not believe that the skinny girl, her arms hugging her toys that had appeared in his life twenty odd rings ago was now expecting a child of her own. A boy or a girl? The tree preferred girls as a rule, but that was Zoe. He could not decide which he preferred.
Her pregnancy was spectacular. She shone all throughout it as she was carrying the messiah in her bulging belly that did not diminish an ounce of her regal composure. Her white smile was like a balm for his old branches and her expectancy made it all the brighter.
It was a girl. Amalia.
He saw Zoë and Amalia every day. First prams then push chairs, then tricycles. Mother and daughter would sit by the palm tree and play. Zoe would sing to her or tell her stories the tree had heard thousands of times before but when it came to Zoë or her daughter, he had never enough. Contrary to his neutral feelings towards Ethan – who often joined them on the grass, the tree felt a deep attachment to Amalia, just like he had for her mother all those years ago
The child was going to preschool now, and she talked with her mother or father when, small hand tucked in big hand, they would leave the building, her small voice piping like the trill of a bird.
The cypress, now fully grown and looking important, often talked about the almond’s feeling for those humans. The almond never replied, but the questions were pertinent. He didn’t have any more an answer than the cypress did, but the questions still gnawed at him. If a tree could shrug, he would have, for the answers to those questions were elusive.
But even if he didn’t know the reason why, he was happy.
And then Zoë and Ethan started showing up with strange people, escorting them in and out and talking excitedly on the pavement.
Know-it-all cypress delivered the news: “She is moving out,” he said laconically.
The shock was terrible. It had been rings since he thought of the future. Zoe was living in the building and raising her child, so there was nothing to fear, but this! This move was as devastating as a lightning strike, a fate he would have preferred for himself.
Eventually, the flat was sold and soon after boxes and furniture started leaving the house. Friends came and helped themselves, and finally a big van came and movers started carting furniture from the apartment into the van. Spring was in the air, but for the almond tree, if was like winter forever.
Next morning the van came again and on their second pass, the movers emptied the apartment. Zoe was watching them with a wary eye. These were her last moments in the house she had grown up in and had returned to upon the demise of her parents. Most of her memories were set within these walls. Amalia, her eyes wide open in wonder explored the empty shell that had been her house.
She tugged at her mother’s sleeve. “Come on, Mummy, come on, let’s go.”
In the elevator they fidgeted in silence until its doors swished silently and let them out. While Zoe, in a gesture that was completely automatic, checked the mailbox, Amalia ran out to the garden. Zoe tucked the mail in her bag and looked around the lobby for the last time. , In front of that pillar she had been kissed for the first time, she thought wistfully.
“Mummy, Mummy, come look! Come look!” the voice sounded wondrous, rather than afraid or panicked.
She opened the door that led to the small garden. Amalia was standing, her head half raised, her doll forgotten and trailing on the ground, her finger pointing up. “Look Mummy! The tree is full of flowers!”
Zoe looked at the old almond tree in full bloom. She had often noticed that it had never flowered, not in the twenty years she had lived here, and now it was covered in small white flowers.
She took the three steps down, took her daughter by the hand and bent on one knee. “That’s right, honey. The tree is saying good bye.”

 

The End

The Nobelist

Posted in Uncategorized on August 11, 2012 by jeanaboulafia

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David Shelly was a happy man. He had all the reasons to be, he thought, as he stroked the soft wool of the black tailcoat he would wear at the ceremony.

It would be the third time and yet the excitement was still there.

He lifted the coat from the hotel armchair on which it laid and brought it to the light of the window. Not a speck of dust. The hotel staff was excellent, as expected in a first class hotel in a city like Oslo. Oddly enough, he reflected, this beautiful city was new to him.

He looked at his wrist watch. The reporter should be here very soon. He put the coat in the closet and took out a brown tweed jacket instead. He liked the old thing and thought it appropriate for the occasion. Not that it would be his first interview, not at all, but it would be the first in Norway, and he wanted to strike the right note.

At the age of sixty five he was at the top of his career, a career that had three distinct phases, each of which brought him fame, sometimes fortune, and now the highest a award of all, the most prestigious of all, the Nobel peace prize.

He inspected himself in the mirror, looking with satisfaction at the image reflected back to him. His gray hair had a certain Einsteinian quality, but his face looked youthful, and his dark brown eyes sparkled with intelligence and amusement. And the small scar on his left cheek added a certain sexy touch the women found irresistible.

He donned the jacket and went into the lavish living room of the suite the Norwegian government had been kind enough to provide and sat at the desk to check his emails. There were dozens, mostly congratulations, from colleagues,  past and present, friends and relatives.

He had never married and, to his knowledge, had never begat any children. His many sisters often complained that his genes were too precious to waste, but he had always laughed, saying that his life had no room for family,  especially the last ten years which had taken him to the darkest corners of Africa, where his foundation,  ‘Africa Without Borders’ was operating, teaching villagers sanitation and the use of family planning and proper medicine.

The foundation was his baby. He had founded it, financed it and was its spokesman and it was on its behalf that he was about to accept the prize from the king on the morrow.

While waiting for the reporter he paced in the large living room, thinking of the speech he was about to give upon the receipt of the prize. He thought of the illustrious figures, six hundred or so, who had stood before him, each advancing the cause of humanity in his or her field.

He had been a writer, a reporter and a human rights activist and had reached thepinnacle of his life. After the Goncourt and the Pulitzer he had thought that He could not surpass his achievements. His book, ‘The Kassar’, written in French, had won him fame and fortune. The French people had loved him and the book, the impossible love story between a french soldier and an Arab nationalist imprisoned in the fort, or kassar, the french soldier served, dealt with subjects the french public had a thirst for. Homosexuality, decolonization, Arab nationalism, all was exposed in a style the public had adored. And the TV interviews that had followed had fuelled already skyrocketing sales and his name was being mentionned in the highest spheres of the literature world. The Goncourt was just a logical choice, especially that it had been bestowed on an American born whose french was but a second language.

Well, not quite, he reflected while starting at the computer screen. His mother, a french national, had married a young American diplomat and when he was five, the family had moved to Tunis, where his father was appointed vice consul. There he picked both french and arabic at a speed that stunned his parents and fout elder sisters.

‘David will go far,’ they all said. His mother had family in Tunis and wax glad of the six years spent in that city.

As to David, Tunis and Tunisia were a revelation . At the age of four he read fluently and his curiosity knew no bounds. By the time he was five, he’d read ‘Ali Baba and the forty thieves’, ‘Aladin’, and other stories related to the orient and from the moment his feet trod the ground of the quay, his eyes had lit with pleasure at the sight of the jalabiyya wearing porters who had come to the boat to unload the crates and lugage. Later, and he remembered it was still early morning, he saw a camel caravan carrying golden dates and he knew at that moment that he was hooked on Africa.

For the next six years he went to the American school where he excelled and his journalistic aspirations began with the editing of the school newspaper and his literary ambitions were fulfilled by the publication of his short stories in various publications.

He took the habit of touring the city on his own, sometimes on foot, exploring the maze of streets in the Kasbah, other times touring the large palm lined avenues of the french quarters, riding a ‘calèche’ and enjoying the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the pavement and sometimes he took the little train that took him to a string of small towns lining the coast.

He picked up italian from the television they owned in their comfortable villa in Carthage, an affluent suburb of Tunis and very soon he could converse with the maid, a buxom woman in her forties who’d come from Sicily.

His father took him on his functions and he traveled extensively throughout the country, from Tabarka in the north, where he could hear the guns of the French army across the border with Algeria, to Kerouan in the south where he admired the minaret of the grand mosque.

And all the while, he perfected his Arabic, to the point that he could pass for a native.

In the summers, the family moved to La Goulette where his father kept a white sailboat, the “Albatros” and to this day he could taste the mussels the boys on the beach sold for a few coins and which his mother used to cook on an outdoor stove.

David was happy in Tunisia.

His reverie was interrupted by the buzzing phone. It was the reception informing him of the arrival of a guest, a certain Mina Amundsen, from the “Aftonbladett”.  For some reason, David had expected a man, but was pleased nonetheless. He liked women and hoped this one was attractive. This is not a very noble thought, he reflected with a mental shrug. God knew he wasn’t a saint, Nobel Prize notwithstanding.

“I am coming down,” he informed the anonymous receptionist. “Please ask her to wait for me.”

He peered through the window. It was snowing, a fine curtain of white flakes descending on the medieval center. It was so different than Africa, with its brutal heat and not less brutal reality of poverty, hunger and disease. Here people were well fed, well dressed and most important, they didn’t live in fear.

On the way down to the reception, he shared a lift with a swarthy man wearing a kafiyye and a white abaya, probably a sheik from the Persian Gulf. They exchanged polite hellos, but David could not suppress the thought that this man, or his peers, bore some responsibility for the state Africa was in. Arabs had always used that continent like their back yard, a place they could spread their religion in but also somewhere with an unending supply of slaves, even in these days and age.

He had a Pulitzer to prove it.

The reporter was waiting in the vast lobby, sitting on a low couch and looking bored. She stood up when she noticed him and extended a well manicured hand.

“Mr. Shelly, so nice to meet you. I read so much about you,” she said in the singsong accent most Norwegians had when speaking English. They shook hands, hers was soft. She looked at his scar and he could read the curiosity in her eyes. He traced it with a finger and laughed softly.

“A memento from my earlier days as a journalist myself,” he explained than added. “Would you like to go out for a walk while we talk? I need to stretch my legs and the city is so pretty under the snow.”

“You are not dressed properly for the cold,” she objected and he dismissed her words with a hand gesture.

“I’ll be fine. It is a nice contrast to the heat in Africa.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “As you wish, but if you catch a cold and do not show for the ceremony, it will be on your head.” Her sparkling smile and twinkling eyes – blue of course – softened her words.

Outside was cold, but the thin snow had melted and a timid sun, very low on the horizon, was trying to pierce the gray skies.

“Tell me about your scar,” she said as she clapped her hands to keep warm.

“A bullet grazed me,” he said simply. He remembered that day as if it had been the day before. He had been working on a story for two years when it happened. “It’s a long story. Do you know a place we can have an early lunch?”

“Yes, but let us take a taxi. And you can start telling your story. I read everything you wrote or has been written about you and there was no mention of a grazing bullet anywhere.”

Again, he laughed softly. “I didn’t want it to hijack my story. Can you imagine the media frenzy if it had been known that a white reporter, a prize winning reporter had been shot in Africa? Who’d want to hear the story I was working on?  No, I thought it better to keep mum about it.>’

A black taxi stopped by the curve and David opened the door for Mina. When she slid into the back seat, her skirt slid up her thighs, revealing well shaped legs and a tantalizing bit of black lace. Forget it, he told himself, it’s not ethical and she could be your daughter. However, she caught his gaze and smoothed the skirt back in place, but the trace of the smile on her lips told him that ethical or not, he’d be welcome.

The driver looked through his rear view mirror and shot a couple of sentences in rapid fire Norwegian.

“He wants to know if you are the Peace Nobel prize winner for the year. He said he recognized you from the tabloids.”

“Tell him I am his twin brother,” he replied and her smile widened.

“Do people really believe that?”

“You have no idea. I am sick of being recognized by everybody in this country.”

She shrugged. “It is to be expected. Anyway, that scar? What’s the story?” she asked after giving the driver instructions.

“It is a long story; do you plan on a long lunch?”

“As long as it takes,” she said and retrieved a notebook from her purse. “Now, the story.”

He looked out of the window at the city streets, trying to frame the words.  He’d been a diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, a respected journalist who’d covered wars, famines and natural disasters in every conceivable place on earth and was now bored with cocktail parties in the nation’s capital.

It was during one of those cocktail parties when he chanced upon the new ambassador of a small African nation on the Red Sea.

“Ah. Mr. Shelly, how nice to meet you,” the diplomat said and dazzled him with a very white smile. “I read all your books.”

“Thank you for the royalties,” David replied with a sardonic smile.

“I am afraid not. It was a public library.”

David shrugged. “Books are meant to be read, not to enrich the authors. I am glad you liked them.”

“I did. And might I have a word with you in private?” the diplomat asked. A passing waiter carrying a tray of champagne stopped next to the two men. . David grabbed a flute and raised his eyebrows in a mute question.

“No, I do not drink alcohol. The Koran forbids it.”

The two men found an empty room and sat down. “What can I do for you? David asked as he sipped the excellent wine.

“It is more what I can do for you, replied the diplomat.”How would you like to write a piece on modern slavery in West Africa? My government is helpless to stop this scourge, but if such a distinguished newspaper as the Washington Post were to publish a story by the famous David Shelly, I am sure it would have a tremendous impact.”

And so it began.

His boss at the Washington Post refused to let him go, so he resigned and met the diplomat again, then he flew to Nairobi and from there to Massawah, where he went native. He frequented the mosques and markets, the cafes and the dens where the less savory characters gathered. He mixed with the smugglers and pirates, soldiers of fortune and religious zealots and not once had he been suspected of not being an Arab. He blended in and soon he had contacts who led him to start joining raiding parties. Herds of sheep, water pumps, food, all was for the taking and each time he raided a village, he made sure a vast sum of money was sent for compensation.. He crossed the Red Sea quite often, carrying arms, hashish or quatt, tobacco  or stolen cars, but not human cargo.

“I read all that in your book, ‘Red Highway’,'” she said with a note of annoyance. “But not a word about a scar.”  She uncrossed and re crossed her legs, and again the flash of black lace and David gulped involuntarily.  Suddenly he needed a drink. She smiled an easy smile and looked unabashed.

“Are we still far?” he asked in a croaky voice.  From across the wet window he could see they were now in the countryside and the sun was trying a weak comeback.

She glanced outside. “Not far. So, tell me, why you wrote nothing about this sexy scar of yours?”

Was she flirting with him? He was not sure, and beside, that evening he was to attend a gala, and he should prepare right after lunch. He could not afford the time. But the idea was so appealing!

He cleared his throat. “I didn’t want to be a subject of the book. I didn’t want to distract the cause of the slavery with a personal injury.
“We were on the sea shore, waiting for the boats to carry us to sea. The slaves were tied to each other, like a kind of human chain. Suddenly a fight broke, I was armed but unloaded and one of the prisoners, a young man who had been a soldier all his life, managed to free himself and neutralize the guard next to him. With the weapon he liberated weapon he gave a fight, spraying bullets indiscriminately at his captors, of which I was one.  The slavers fought back and I was pinned down, shouting to the manacled men to stay low while at the same time, trying to reach the local army officer in charge of stopping the pirates. My role was not glorious and I saw no point in mentioning it. When people ask me where I got the scar I say ‘while shaving’.”

“Admirable,” she murmured. The car was slowing down. “We reached our destination,” she said as she folded her notebook and put it back in her purse.

He could see a stone two story building with huge wooden doors and a medieval look. “”What is this place?”

“It’s called the Old Inn and it has been in constant business since the fourteen hundreds. They have an excellent chef who does wonders with game and river fish.” she looked at the second story with its black slate roof. “It has rooms upstairs and the room service is as good as the restaurant.” She looked at him frankly, her blue eyes twinkling with faint amusement.

He gave her a sidelong glance and nodded slowly. He liked the idea. “Let’s go,” he simply said and threw a wad of notes on the front seat.

The room was as exquisite as the meal had been. They made love before and after , and now  David, wearing a towel robe, stood  in front of the window, looking pensively out.

Mina, the sheet wrapped around her chest, was sipping champagne. She put the glass down and stretched her arms expensively. The sheet fell thus revealing nice breasts. “You are a wonderful lover, a great author, a very good journalist and now a peace Nobelist. You are an accomplished man.  What makes so perfect in everything you try?”

He turned around and sat on the bed. He kissed her throat and ran his lips down onto her heaving chest. “The answer is simple,” he said. “I was born on May 8th.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “I don’t get it.”

“Not only may the 8th marks the end of the Second World War, but by a very odd coincidence, the city I grew up in was also liberated from the Nazis on May the 8th. So, starting  May, the whole city was covered with flags and I used to ask around what were the flags for. And everyone and I mean everyone, from my sisters to uncles to cousins, to consulate people, told me that it was in my honor. And for a while, not only did I believe them, but I felt very important. With such an ego boost, what choice did I have and how could I not excel as I do?

The End