He did not want to go back, even if she invited him, which she didn’t.
He never forgave Semyon for leaving Israel. After all that poetry and pain. Refuseniks, queues for visas, stripped citizenships. Semyon would go to underground Hebrew classes and come back reciting Bialik, sneaking copies of Leon Uris’s translated Exodus. At parties they’d make wistful toasts to far-off eastern deserts and hills.
Only a year of living in Haifa, and Semyon’s wife Raya was complaining, saying she wanted to join her sister in New York. When her sister’s husband found a job for Semyon, he sighed and surrendered. Only for a year, he had said when he came to tell Leon the news. We’ll come back. My children, he had said somberly, will speak Hebrew.
Leon hadn’t seen his niece and nephew since the funeral. Raya had married again, a wealthy computer programmer (Igor), moved into a large empty catalogue-order house (two-car garage) in New Jersey. They bought a small dog. The boy and girl were in college already. They sent a postcard every New Year’s, signed Igor, Raya, the kids and Cookie.
“There is no reason for us to stay here anymore,” his mother often said, fanning herself. “It’s too hot for me here.” What she meant, he knew, was that all passions and ideals had flown out the window. Semyon the family Zionist was dead. Now they could all move to Brooklyn.
Leon had stayed quiet. He could not formulate the silent attachment he felt to the earth on which he stood, to those olive trees and white stones. Ron felt the Land through its history, the Patriarchs and Judges and Kings, every cubit of land another holy word on parchment. For him, here the creation of the world began, Abraham offering Isaac as a sacrifice, the Temple built, the rabbis debating with angels. But Leon doesn’t need this. The trees and stones are enough; the stillness of the desert speaks to him in a way that no forest ever did.
Ron had a favorite Talmudic quote that he often recited when he’d come home on leave. Neither Leon nor Anya would ever respond, but over time, it had engraved itself onto their palms. It is said that the Holy One did not give the Jewish People three things without pain: the Torah, the World to Come, and the Land of Israel.
And so they had stayed there, in Jerusalem. In torment.
She would take anything over a desert. Anya’s white-blond nanny had taught her to love the thick Russian woods, to cherish songs of Katyas who sent their love to sweethearts at the front. Black bread with butter, bright red floral aprons. “She used to tell me, you can still love Mother Russia, Anyuta. Even if you are Jewish.”
“And your mother kept her?” Leon had been baffled.
“Oh, Mother trusted her too much.” Anya smiled, remembering. “Anyway, she knew I’d never tell on her.”
“No, no, God no. Tatiana Pyotrovna was like God to me. I listened to everything she said. Absorbed it too, I suppose.” She had walked over to the window, her smile fading, and closed the curtain. Her mother had been enraptured by the charms of Russia as well. Perhaps that was why she had hired Tatiana Pyotrovna in the first place, fascinated by the old woman’s long white-blond braid. Anya’s mother had lived with them until her death, a year after coming to Israel. She had not held out the desert; one morning she woke up and opened her mouth, only for her voice to fly out. She died a month later. Leon often overheard her telling stories to Ron. Stories of firebirds, peasant girls and vibrantly colored czars. Is it true, Babulya? Did it really happen? Anya’s mother would smile and say, of course, my child, anything can happen in a forest.
Once, back in the Soyuz, they left Ron with her mother and rented a cottage south of Moscow. Summer nights were breezy, and they held each other as they lay together in bed. It was three years before they left, before leaving was even a discussion. The window was open and they listened to the wild noises of the night. He reached to caress her side and she gently wiped away his hand, instead saying, “Don’t you think there’s something…alluring, about the forest?”
“The forest? I find it more…threatening.” He lay back, staring at the ceiling. “I think hills, valleys, they are more alluring.”
She laughed. “So typical of a man to say,” she yawned, turning over and pulling the sheet up to her chin.
A desert for a garden. Words out of the tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp. She really had gone to Moscow, hadn’t she? A picture: They are young, confused, dependent on government immigrant welfare. She is holding a sleeping Ron while Leon takes pictures of the dry splendor around them. The tour guide drones. The modern symbol of Jewish survival…here in 73 CE…Today, Israeli soldiers take an oath in this spot, saying, “Masada shall not fall again.” At the gift shop, while the other Russian-born immigrants flip through photography books, Anya sits on a bench with Ron, who is eating sliced apples that she has dutifully prepared. She gulps down water desperately. “This place…a cholera,” she mutters. She shakes the sand out of her beige shoes.
It takes him a long time to sift through the bookshelves. He has to move aside the front rows of books, often concealing two rows behind. Her thesis folders and notebooks are everywhere. He opens one manila folder and in it finds notes on Henry James, Balzac, Kafka. Yet her thesis is on Russian literature. He thinks of all of the hours he did not see her, the hours he secretly yearned for her, as she sat, bent over papers, books, the computer. All of that work was devoted to something entirely different than her thesis. Perhaps studying, note-taking, for the pure sake of it? Or did she do it to busy herself, to avoid something else? What were you doing, Anya? What value is there in that which is irrelevant?
The One Thousand and One Arabian Nights has a black cover and gold writing, a Russian copy that he had read to Ron many times over the years. He is not surprised when he finds her note inside.
“‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.
‘I don’t much care where…’ said Alice.
‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.”
The last line is underlined. Leon sighs. Perhaps, with time, he’ll understand.
The next morning old pious Chaim Isaakovich is sitting in the front of the building again. Next to him sits the blind Shabazi grandmother. They sit and converse in their archaic Hebrew dialects; they finally have found ears for their illusions.
It is Sabbath morning and the country is quiet. The night before, after reading the Arabian Nights’ inscription, Leon had notified the police. A missing person. He did not tell them about the notes left behind. They had been polite, distant. Vowed to find a conclusion. He had not slept all night, and at seven in the morning gave up and left for a walk.
“How is it going?” Mrs. Granoff asks at the street corner, holding her grandchild by the hand. She smiles softly, the skin creasing about her eyes. Her bra strap is showing from beneath her open-necked shirt. Leon can’t help noticing that it’s twisted. “I’m so sorry to hear about Anya,” she says sadly. When his mouth opens in astonishment, she explains that her son-in-law is a police investigator and that there’s no such thing as a secret among Jews. “I’m sure she’s safe. She’s a smart girl. Didn’t that other librarian, Shira what’s-her-name, leave on Wednesday, too? Went to New York, I heard.”
“The ancients may have found inspiration here. David his Psalms, Solomon his Song of Songs. Agnon his stories, Bialik his poetry. But I haven’t.”
Anya had always said that Vladimir Arshansky was an incredibly rude man. Even if his son did die in Lebanon two years ago. Arshansky looks at Leon in the eye. “She could have gone and joined a cult. Nu, why not?”
Leon does not answer. One of his neighbors must have called his parents to wish them well in the difficult situation of their daughter-in-law, because soon the phone is ringing and he is forced to talk to his hysterical mother, his brooding father in the background. Boris Kogan calls, so does Valya Melnik. They tell him they know where she is. “I tell you, she really did go to Moscow,” his mother breathes into the phone. “Where else could the girl have gone?”
“Maybe her cousin, the divorced one—Masha? Maybe she knows where Anya went?” one of Anya’s friends suggests. “Maybe Anya went away to the relatives in Haifa for a few days…to get away…” she grows quiet suddenly, awkwardly.
Ron still doesn’t know—it is Sabbath for him, and he is somewhere on a base in the West Bank, in a Torah lecture or at a Sabbath meal. Your mother is missing, he practices. Ron will take it calmly, he knows. Nothing fazes the boy.
He tries to imagine her leaving impulsively, Anna-Karenina-style. You were never the type, he tells her, always so quiet and withdrawn, occasionally tending to Ron and mostly to your books. You had only grown passionate among our intellectual friends, in crammed kitchens over dry cakes, vodka and tea. Yet with me, you were silent. You let me talk. What made you so unhappy, Anechka? He tries to remember what he talked about with her. Probably his chemistry, his laboratory findings.
And you had listened so intently, he pleads with her. While I continued to talk on and on. You must have secretly mocked me. Perhaps you had gotten tired of my dry numbers, my formulas? And went off to seek the moisture of words? Yet words too could be so colorless, so dead and flat.
He drinks three tall glasses of water, one after the other, when he gets home from his walk. His heart gives a jerk when he hears the floor creak in the next room, and when he runs out to the bedroom to see, realizes that the creak was not what he had hoped but a trick of his hearing, a household imp. Everything takes your shape now. The radio, the water running next door.
His father tersely tells him over the phone to continue working. “Nothing like routine to keep life normal,” Grisha says. “Chto sluchilos, Ada? Ah? Your mother is uncontrollable, Leon. She walks around the house crying all day.”
Something foreign inside Leon answers coolly: “Tell her to relax. She’ll be back.” Maybe it is good, that someone is crying for you, Anya.
“She doesn’t listen. It’s too much for her, after—”
She thinks she lost another child.
“Tell her it won’t help the situation to cry more. Just, practically—it makes no sense.”
Would you have cried if I had left?
When he walks to the super on Bar Kochva to pick up a pack of salami, he sees a little girl with long braided hair, crying and clutching her hand. She had been bitten by a dog, and the dog’s owner stands, confused, apologizing.