Arts & Culture
Israeli Fiction: “Laundry”
Suzane Adam’s acclaimed novel, Laundry, reminds readers that childhood is all too often pervaded by fears, both real and imagined, both spoken and unspoken. In this lyric excerpt, a grown woman recalls the distant torments of her childhood in the … Read More
Suzane Adam’s acclaimed novel, Laundry, reminds readers that childhood is all too often pervaded by fears, both real and imagined, both spoken and unspoken. In this lyric excerpt, a grown woman recalls the distant torments of her childhood in the 1950s ‘beyond the forests’—in Transylvania. Sickness, slaughter, and long suppressed secrets form the backdrop for the narrator’s dark fairy tale of her youth. What begins as a closely-observed domestic scene from a lost world soon burns with feverish menace. But only by understanding her painful past can the narrator make sense of the mystery of her Israeli present.—Adam Rovner, translations editor
We sat on the carpet in the large room that we used for both family and guests. One large rug covered most of the parquet floor. My sister was watching me. For some reason the rug caught my eye; with concentration I methodically traced the patterns. A wine-colored border two fingers wide, a thin black stripe, a thin white stripe crossed by black lines like the teeth of people in the pictures I drew. Flowers and stems twisted in a wonderful pattern in the middle of the rug, leaves streamed from the flowers in stripes and circles, each shape changing and turning into a new shape, burgundy, black, brown, white, gold, green—an expensive Persian rug, they’d explained to me. I wasn’t allowed to walk on it in my dirty shoes. Only in the summertime did they take up the heavy rug—my mother, my father, and Anna, too, who only came to clean and iron—hanging it on the wooden fence outside, and all the neighbors passing by would stop and marvel at its beauty. My mother would put a kerchief on so she wouldn’t get dust in her braid, then she’d beat both sides of the rug with a carpet-beater made from a bundle of reeds. When she was finished, a cloud of dust was created with every sigh that came from her body. Then she brought buckets of vinegar diluted with water, and with a soft brush she gently scrubbed the silk fibers of the rug until they sparkled and gleamed in the sunlight.
It was hard to clean the rug, and I thought about this as I traced the curling flowers between me and my sister. A strange trembling seized me, as if I’d been turned upside-down by one of the winding vines, a cold wind shook me from the inside, a cave formed in my body, even though I’d only heard of caves in stories and folktales, at the bottom of that cave I felt inside me there was a heavy whirlpool of mud, like the ones I saw once when the Samush overflowed its banks. I wanted to sleep, I was so tired, I was cold, and I was hot, and my sister was crying. My sister, who was almost three, opened and closed her mouth like a dying fish that has washed ashore. My last thought was that I was supposed to be responsible for her
When I woke up, I was naked from the waist up. Dr. Ontel, Joschka’s father, was pressing his fingers to my neck and under my armpits, placing a palm on my chest. With his other hand he tapped steadily, his ears trying to interpret the echo inside my ribs. I was cold, and when Joschka’s father turned me over onto my belly and started tapping on my back, the curls that fell on my face had a faintly sour smell. The sheet and mattress were soaked with cold urine. I turned my head from side to side, examining my surroundings in terror. Beside me my mother whispered, Hush, hush, everything is fine…
The next day, after I’d fainted once more, I was taken away to a hospital that specialized in children’s diseases. My mother bundled me up in a fur jacket that barely buttoned over my woolen underwear and two sweaters. My father’s thick scarf was wrapped around my head, I wore flannel pajama bottoms under my itchy wool pants that I hated, plus gloves and boots. I sat like that on the edge of the kitchen chair, my body sealed up, beads of sweat dripping from my forehead and blurring my vision, waiting for Pishta, Bijou’s father, to come with the slaughterhouse truck.
The slaughterhouse truck was coming for me, I was sick, the sick went to the slaughterhouse. Even though I recognized it, its color, the sound of its engine, and even though Pishta, my best friend’s father, sat in the driver’s seat, and even though my mother stood anxiously at the open door of the truck’s cab, and even though the truck seemed to be innocent of anything wicked and evil, I refused to climb in and sit on the bouncy, brown leather seat. Bijou’s mother held my crying sister on her hip, comforting her. All the children were at school, the neighbors were busy. The street was white except for the tire tracks of the snowplows, whose blades had turned the white snow into a brownish porridge. I saw footprints people had left on the sidewalk, big and small, blurred, deep. My mother was getting angry, Pishta was in a hurry, and again I felt as though I were about to take flight. Before I collapsed again I had enough time to look at the roof of my family’s house melting into the branches of the tree that stood like a naked sentry.
In the big hospital, they put me in the second bed to the left of the door. There were ten beds in all. The large windows had bars. It was the eighth floor of the ten-storey building. A hospital just for children. The regulations were strict: we could only leave the room to use the bathrooms and once a day for a shower, according to a schedule devised by the nurses. The children were listless. Some were bald, some bloated, some gaunt. The smell of Lysol was new to me. I felt as healthy as a horse, I had an appetite, thankfully. I was pink and chubby, a stain of health among the sick. They took a lot of my blood in glass syringes. I stared at the floor the whole time, making sure my blood wasn’t dripping into a groove next to my bed. My mother didn’t understand, the doctors were not as nice as Dr. Ontel, always scolding me, insisting I lie quiet. Some of the other children slept, some of them groaned, tossing restlessly. They were quiet; they didn’t act like any children I knew. Their visitors were sent home. According to the regulations, patients were allowed visitors once a day for two hours, even if the patients were frightened, crying children. My mother rented a room from a family nearby; this was very expensive. She promised me she would come back the next day. I didn’t believe her. I was sure she was abandoning me.. The next day I was shocked when my mother’s worried face found me beneath the covers.
And there was a girl there, fragile as a baby chick, whose age I couldn’t guess. She sat rigidly straight. Her hair was not like a girl’s hair—it was just a yellowish-white down that seemed to float like a halo above her scalp. This was Marishka the artist. From her I learned that I could draw instead of faint.
The doctors bandaged my vein and went to see what was wrong with my blood. The thin, smiling nurse who always patted the children walked by the big room at all hours, peeking in to make sure everyone was quiet. I cried and cried, and when I finished crying beneath the covers and couldn’t faint from fear, and didn’t see colors swirling together, and didn’t feel any caves in my belly, I got up from the bed with its squeaky steel springs. With my healthy steps I approached Marishka’s creaky bed and sat down.
She was very thin, the skin of her hands nearly transparent—through it I could see bluish scribbles, and yellow, pink, even blotches of purple, as if the colors of the drawings scattered around her were staining her from the inside. Her eyes were two sunken brown holes. She didn’t have any eyelashes, the only color on her face that wasn’t somewhere between gray and white were her pinkish lips. From the corner of her mouth her pale tongue stuck out, decorated with little white dots. Her head tilted toward the same side as her tongue pointed, and when she moved her tongue to the opposite corner of her mouth, her head also leaned to that side, as if her tongue were helping her head keep her balance. It seemed to me that her bed was bigger than mine because she only took up as much room as a pillow, at the very top. I sat on the edge of the bed, at the end of a path of colors strewn across the white bedspread. She didn’t speak, just kept drawing with surprising concentration, ignoring her guest. Maybe she hadn’t seen me.
“What are you drawing?” I asked in a whisper, so as not to disturb her, and also so I wouldn’t break one of the hospital regulations—I still didn’t know them all. She raised her head from her notebook and stared at me the way my teacher used to look at students who disturbed him when he was in the middle of reading a book, except that Marishka didn’t have glasses, and her gaze wasn’t threatening or scary. She lifted up her notebook and turned it around so I could see the results of her labors, and said in an older girl’s voice, “I’m drawing a picture. Isn’t it pretty?” The page was crowded with lines, smudges, colors streaming into each other to make more colors and more lines. There were no blue skies, or houses with red roofs, or flowers coming out of brown earth, like in the pictures Bijou and I drew. “Is it pretty?” she asked again. Yes, the picture was pretty. She turned the page and showed me the picture upside down. “Isn’t it pretty?” I thought this upside-down picture was pretty, too. I didn’t say it out loud, but I nodded, and she carefully tore off a page and held it out to me. “You draw something, too,” she commanded. I picked up a blue pencil, the color I loved, and thought about what to draw as I chewed on the end of it. “Draw,” she insisted. “Close your eyes and draw,” she said in the firm voice of a teacher. I thought this was a silly suggestion. If I closed my eyes, how could I see what I was drawing? I tried anyway, if only out of curiosity. With my eyes shut, I scribbled with the blue pencil, then felt around for other colors without opening my eyes, until I was completely frustrated. “You’re not drawing, you’re doodling. Draw!” she said. She was so small and fragile, more so even than the porcelain girl with the goose that decorated the high shelf of the buffet at my house. She gave me another page and coolly turned back to her own drawing.
I understood she was giving me another chance. I closed my eyes and saw my mother’s smile, the snow, the rug, the Samush overflowing its banks. I drew black lines, crowding together, beside them lots of sky blue, between them paths of red and brown and two purple circles above them, from which pointed yellow horns that blended with the green at the bottom of the page. I don’t know how much time passed; when I lifted my head I felt the way I felt every time I woke up after fainting. Marishka watched me, her mouth forming a smile. “You drew a beautiful picture,” she said, and collected all the colors in a small wooden box, where she also put the notebook, without having to fold the pages. She put the closed box next to the pillow she was leaning on, groaned like a woman exhausted by a long day of work, and slid under her blanket, disappearing. Her body made such a small lump in the covers that it seemed as though the bed hadn’t reacted to the fact that someone was lying there.
The next day, during visiting hours, I asked my mother to bring me a notebook and many colored pencils. For hours that day, between the needles and the examinations, I lay on my back staring at the ceiling. For ten days the doctors tried to solve the mystery of my fainting spells. They only talked to me when they wanted me to lie quiet while they did their daily tests. I said nothing, I didn’t tell them a thing.
From Marishka I learned how to mix colors. I never figured out the secrets of her drawings, and she didn’t examine the contents of mine. Two days before my mother bundled me up and took me home, Marishka’s bed was empty, neatly made, without her wooden box. “Where is Marishka?” I asked the nurse. “She’s gone.” I was afraid to ask where.
To this day I regret not knowing what happened to her. Maybe she died, maybe today she has children. She taught me to draw.