Five Seasons

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Five Seasons Page 2

by A. B. Yehoshua

  But the taxi was coming down the street now too, chuffing and billowing exhaust. Preceded by the cane that for some obscure reason she had taken to carrying in the past month, his mother-in-law stepped briskly out of it, paid the driver, and stood there talking to him. There was something about her that inspired confidence in people, with whom she knew how to get along. Had she told the man where she was going so early in the morning or would she have thought that undignified? The taxi departed, leaving her standing by herself on the opposite curb. Deftly slipping her change into her purse, she glanced in both directions, as if waiting for an invisible flow of traffic to stop, before crossing the street. She was, he noticed, warmly dressed in a raincoat, boots, and gloves, and she was wearing for the first time the red woolen cap they had bought her in Paris two years ago. He stepped toward her, wary of the cane that advanced through the air as if tracking an unseen target, careful not to scare her—and in fact, head bent in sorrow, she took him at first for a stranger and sought to make a detour around him. Gently he blocked her way and held out his hand. Though she had shrunken in recent years, she still held herself upright, and her skin, despite its wrinkled, slightly liverish patina that gave off a faint smell of old scent, had a morning freshness.

  “The driver lost his way; he misunderstood,” she said in her German accent, which was always strongest in the morning, after a night of German dreams. “I hope you weren’t too worried,” she added, looking away from him. He stared down without answering, surprised by her matter-of-factness, seeking to help her by the elbow down the garden stairs. But she did not want to be helped. Her ancient body was alive and agile beneath its layers of clothing as she shone her little flashlight on the wet stone stairs of the garden that were strewn with autumn leaves, descending them with her cane hooked over one arm, then transferring it to the other while ascending the house stairs with him hurrying after her, plucking a wet newspaper from the mailbox as he passed it. She all but ran to the bedroom when he opened the front door, her face hard and pale, her lips trembling. “Just a minute,” he whispered while she struggled with the doorknob, taking the key from his pocket and trying to explain. But he saw she wasn’t listening. Without removing her large coat and hat, and holding her cane and lit flashlight, she burst inside as if she still might not be too late. The room itself had grown quite stuffy, and the face of the limp-handed woman actually seemed flushed. Yet, poignantly, everything was just as he had left it. He remained standing in the doorway, returning his wife of thirty years to her mother, detachedly watching the old woman throw herself without a word on the corpse, fondle it, kiss it, cross its two arms on its chest, lie a while beside it, and emit a piercing sob like the blast of a distant, sinking ship, so that Molkho, whose newspaper was still under his arm, felt the lump in his throat again and wished the strange sound might sweep him away on a wave of wished-for tears, though he knew that it wouldn’t, that it was only, after all, a sob.

  His mother-in-law was a cultured, educated woman who read books and went to concerts. In Israel, to which she had come shortly before World War II, she had run an orphanage, and during her daughter’s illness she and Molkho had become quite close. Despite all the hired nursing help, the real burden of caring for his wife had been shouldered by the two of them, and while they had never talked about Death itself, only about practical things, he felt sure she held the same opinion of it as he did—namely, that it was the absolute end of everything and that the two of them, he and she, were alone by themselves now in this room. And so, going over to her, he laid a light hand on her shoulder, which was something he had never done before, helped her out of her coat, took her hat, and led her to the small armchair in which she had spent so much time in recent days.

  She sank into it, her old face deeply creased beneath its shock of gray hair, her heavy glasses misted over, so like and unlike her dead daughter, while he, seeing her stricken and bewildered, began to pace up and down, choking back his emotion. “The end was very peaceful,” he said. “I don’t think she suffered at all. I’m sure she wasn’t in pain, and I know what pain is. I’m quite sure she wasn’t,” he repeated, carried away by his own conviction as if it were he, rather than she, who had died an hour ago, the old woman hanging on every word and nodding all the time. “Yes, she’ll be quiet now,” she said, as if the deceased were a troublesome child who had finally fallen asleep, and he felt so touched by her flushed, bewildered face with its glasses halfway down its nose that he burst into tears himself, feeling equally sorry for the two of them, while she regarded him with quiet sympathy until, finishing crying, he went to the bathroom to wash, taking off his shirt and jacket and deciding this time to shave.

  When Molkho emerged from the bathroom he found his daughter wide-awake and tearful, her arms around her grandmother, and he nodded to her across the room as if to say, “Yes, now you know too,” as though the knowledge were an object that could be passed from hand to hand. Glancing again at the dead body, he felt as overwhelmed by its immobility as if the earth’s very orbit had stopped. And yet, the morning paper, lying forgotten at the foot of the bed, reminded him with a pang that it hadn’t, and looking out at the sky, he saw a soft white streak that was the dawn.


  HE PHONED his elder son, the college student, and went to wake the high school boy, which was no easy task in the dark. During the last year the boy had taught himself to sleep soundly, dead to the world, but Molkho forced him out of bed, throwing off the blankets (beneath which his son had slept in his clothes again to save time dressing in the morning) before breaking the news to him. He was prepared for it, had been in fact for quite a while. Over the past month he had detached himself from his mother, so impatient with the slowness of her death that if, asking about her on coming home from school, he was told she had had a good day, he frowned involuntarily. Now his father took him for a last look at her, steering him by the shoulder, though stiff with sleep he stood there so dazed and dry-eyed that Molkho wondered if it wouldn’t be better for him to take his exam in school than stay home and get in everyone’s way. Meanwhile, pale and haggard, the college student had arrived with the speed of light and was showering kisses on his grandmother while lightly holding his mother’s hand. Next he’ll start kissing her too, Molkho thought, sensing himself grow more remote, more coldly calculating, from minute to minute.

  The telephone rang. It was 5:15. His mother was calling from Jerusalem. Though how was beyond him, she already knew everything; all night long she hadn’t slept a wink, thinking about it. She had wanted so badly, she wept, to say good-bye to her. She had loved her so much. Could someone fetch her from Jerusalem? When could they come? Could they keep the body at home until she got there? He heard the distant, muffled sound of her tears and parried her lamely, exhaustedly, ignoring her pleas, for he knew she had always been afraid of her daughter-in-law, whose corpse he preferred she not see in its bed. Finally he hung up and dialed a close friend, the doctor who had treated his wife in recent years. He, too, answered at once and quite lucidly, as if he had been expecting the telephone to ring. Meanwhile, an aroma of coffee filled the house, and Molkho greedily drank the large, hot mug of it poured him by his son, feeling drunk with the sweetness of Death, pacing back and forth in the room, though never too close to the bed, listening to his daughter’s endless sobs—she, of all people, who had never gotten along with her mother at all.

  His mother-in-law still sat by the bed, guarding it without moving. The doorbell rang. It was the doctor and his wife, both grim-looking. Brushing past Molkho, the doctor went straight to the corpse and examined it thoroughly, as if to make sure it was dead, which made Molkho fear that it wasn’t, that maybe it was merely unconscious, while at the same time feeling angry at not being believed. But at last the examination was over; gently the doctor drew the sheet over the dead woman’s face, and Molkho told him about the end, imitating her wheezing and the tremor in her hands, though just then the flood of morning light pouring in the window made th
e two-hour-old death seem something that had happened long ago. The doctor listened and dialed the hospital to order an ambulance, while several neighbors knocked and entered, all of whom—the women, too—had to kiss Molkho. Odder yet, it seemed to him, was how one of them burst out wailing bitterly, starting off the day with a good cry at the corpse’s expense, though she and his wife had never done more than say hello on the stairs. Her husband stood by concernedly, conversing with Molkho’s mother-in-law, who still sat by the side of the bed as if she were the living half of the dead person and empowered to carry on in her behalf.

  Molkho felt exhausted. Desiring to be alone, he went and sat in the living room, from where he listened to the college student telephoning all their friends in his toneless drawl, rousing them from bed without even an apology. No doubt, Molkho thought, they, too, would come running to pay their last respects—an idea that aroused in him such profound resistance that he sat stubbornly brooding in the corner, thinking how much better it would be for no one to see her at all. What did her dead body matter? All along he had taken good care of her, everyone knew that he had, and now all at once he was to blame for her death, for which he was being held accountable.

  Time passed as in a waking dream. More and more people, surprisingly quick to arrive, rang the doorbell, all wanting to be with him, just as once, long ago (for so last night already seemed), they had wanted to be with her. Then his mother was on the phone again; but this time, refusing to rise, he asked his son or daughter to take the call. Where, he wondered bitterly, was he to find the strength for it all? He had always imagined that his wife’s death would set him free, yet now he felt newly shackled, and when someone removed the sheet from her face, which looked pale and ugly in the strong light, he suddenly had enough and snapped, “What do you think this is, Lenin’s tomb?” Just then, though, the ambulance arrived, and two men carried her out of the house. It wasn’t even seven; it was like one of those distant days long ago when she left for school ahead of time because her class had an early homeroom.


  THEY WERE ALL AFRAID that the rain would spoil the funeral, but at noontime, some two hours beforehand, the sky cleared and a warm breeze blew in from the sea. The procession left the funeral parlor on time and covered without incident the short, straight distance to the cemetery, where, the hour being convenient and the news having spread, the crowd turned out to be a large one. All eyes were on him, following him to the grave, and he did his best to look about and remember who was there, asking his children to remember too. A light, delicate mist swirled about them, whitening the tombstones, and they walked in its midst with an unhurried crunching of feet: his mother-in-law, without her cane and surrounded by all her old friends, stepping slowly and supporting each other; his children with their friends; and he himself with his mother in tow, tottering after him in a black fur coat like a cart missing a wheel, stopping in front of all the people she knew to cast them a disconsolate glance. The grave had already been dug that morning in a new section of the cemetery on a low rise of the mountain, and now he stood dutifully beside it, looking down at the fresh earth and observantly up again at the murmuring crowd, pleased to see not only his friends from the office but many secretaries and colleagues too. The woman doctor who had once treated his wife was there also, as were her fellow teachers and many others he couldn’t place—teenagers, college students, young soldiers, high school pupils in their uniforms, his children’s teachers, even several cousins from Jerusalem, heavy, balding Sephardim of the old school, bundled in scarves, their eyes, unused to the sight of it, fixed on the stormy sea nearby with a look of astonished concern. He had never been such an attraction before, besieged by so many people—who were thinking mainly of her, of course, but no doubt also of him.

  The rabbi beside him was an impeccably dressed, distinguished-looking man of German origin who had presided two years ago at his wife’s uncle’s funeral to the satisfaction of the entire family, at which time her mother had had the presence of mind to jot down his telephone number. Quickly, expertly, he tore the lapel of Molkho’s shirt while Molkho looked at him hopefully, trusting him to guide them just as smoothly through the rest of the ceremony. Surrounded by his children, friends, and family, he stood there certain of the acknowledgment in their warm, approving looks, for he knew that they knew how devotedly he had cared for his wife, doing everything he could to nurse her at home until the end—yes, even the rabbi, in brief but eloquent words, was now speaking in his praise. Raising his eyes to the somberly listening circle of women, his wife’s friends, now regarding him contemplatively, Molkho wondered if any of them knew things he didn’t, intimate secrets she might have shared with them during the long hours they had sat with her, strange fantasies even, the product of her illness, against which he was unable to defend himself. Why, even though she had refused to make love to him since that day seven years ago when her first breast was removed, he had never been unfaithful, had never protested even once!


  AFTER THE FUNERAL WAS OVER and he had cried a bit, the mourners filed by to shake his hand. He could tell that they wished him to remember their presence, and trying not to sound too doleful, he promised them all that he would. In the last twenty-four hours he had even perfected a sad nod that was at the same time not so grief-stricken or hopeless as to suggest only Death, for as drained of vitality as he felt, he needed to demonstrate that he was someone still worthy of love. The crowd kept filing by, mostly couples, yet sometimes a lone man or even woman who managed to convey her singleness, such as the legal adviser of his office, a senior official who, three years ago, had lost her husband, whose funeral he had attended with some of his friends, even though he was not on close terms with her. In those days he had already begun to practice going to funerals, and indeed, he now remembered that her husband was buried not far from his wife’s fresh grave. In recent months he had even thought of her as of a definite postmortem possibility.


  IT RAINED all during the week of mourning, and the weather turned so cold that everyone began to wonder if an early winter hadn’t already set in. The heater was turned on in Molkho’s living room, where he sat on the couch with his three children, across from their grandmother, who occupied the large armchair facing them. Molkho’s daughter took off her shoes and wrapped her feet in a blanket, and it was warm and cozy sitting there together, watching the rain fall and greeting the constant flow of visitors, with whom they talked about the weather, and the deceased, and the funeral, and who had been there and what they had said, and the distinguished rabbi and his elegy, which was short but to the point, so that he wasn’t at all as tiresome as he might have been. They sat like that all morning, lay down to rest after lunch, rose at four o’clock, sat again until supper, and then sat some more into the night. At first, Molkho had thought of excusing his younger son and sending him back to school, of which he had already missed enough in recent months, but the boy insisted on joining them and sat there alertly as though feeling much better now that his mother was dead, curiously regarding the old people who came to visit his grandmother, odd octogenarians whom Molkho had never seen before and who now filled his living room, carrying on long conversations in German, of which he understood not a word, though he made a point of smiling whenever they did. Acquaintances and relations came from all over, and Molkho rose immediately to greet them, kissing even those he hardly knew, even those who hadn’t meant to kiss him. Dressed in a soft black turtleneck sweater, unshaven as was the custom, he was perfectly ready to kiss anyone; in fact, all the kissing on sight rather pleased him, and even though most lips did little more than graze his cheek, sometimes a woman from work hugged him tightly, tickling his forehead with her hair and pressing her breasts (or so he assumed them to be) against him. Yet there were some he was wary of touching, such as the young teachers his wife had supervised, the attractive, manicured woman accompanying the fat old lady who came to see his mother-in-law, or the legal adviser from the office,
who paid a condolence call with the head of his department and several other colleagues, in whose company she seemed so ill at ease that she even refused to take off her coat, despite the heat in the apartment.


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