Whenever someone asked me what my family did for the homeland - a question people never stopped asking in Palestine - I always answered immediately - “We get married.” I remember the first time I said it and my teacher threw me out of class. He tried to get control of himself, silencing the first giggles with a threatening gesture. Banished, I stood near the principal’s office, my teacher’s note of complaint in my hand. Even though it was folded in a sealed envelope, I managed to take it out, careful not to tear the envelope. I tried to get someone to read the words for me, and Zionka was the only one who would do it.
“Uziel has dishonored our people and our homeland,” the note said. Zionka was embarrassed. She lowered her eyes as if she were the guilty party. She could barely get the words out, and not because she had some kind of reading problem like I did.
And so, dear children, we repeat the question. What does your family do for the homeland? Herzl Fleisher stood up first, followed by the other pupils, all of them describing how their fathers or their uncles or other people they knew were active in the defense of the Jews in Palestine or had devoted their lives to building the country. But I hadn’t lied. My big brother Imri really did go to Poland to get married for the homeland
His first bride was Anna.
The night Imri left, he went to the toolshed, opened the rusty metal locks of the old brown valise lying near the clay pots once used as bee hives, and emptied out his old school notebooks. Imri too had once been a kid, though that was sometimes hard for me to believe. Aunt Miriam says that he was the most outstanding student in the history of our village and made our mother and father very proud. They expected great things from him. That’s what Aunt Miriam told anyone who was willing to listen. To me, she used to say, “How lucky they’re not alive to see how you’ve turned out.”
Imri filled the valise with clothes that had been lying around the shed since our father died. Watching him trying to fold our father’s best, English-made black suit and two wrinkled, white silk shirts, I began to laugh.
“Imri,” I asked, “are you going to a fancy dress ball?”
Then he stood in front of the small, cracked mirror he had hung on a hook and practiced knotting a tie. He kept getting a different, peculiar-looking knot every time, and I said he looked like a condemned prisoner who had volunteered to tie his own noose. But he wasn’t offended at all. He simply bent down in front of the small mirror, hunting for the exact spot where his head ended and his neck began and mumbling, “It’ll work. It has to work.”
Imri didn’t pack his real clothes. There were none of the khaki pants and sleeveless undershirts Aunt Miriam mended every Saturday night. I don’t know where he found Daddy’s ironed handkerchiefs. I was sure Aunt Miriam had given them to the Sephardic old age home in Jerusalem a long time ago.
He reeked of mothballs. I wrinkled my nose and said, “Imri, be careful these clothes don’t change you,” and he replied dismissively, “Clothes are just pieces of material loosely sewn together. What’s inside never changes.” When he was finally satisfied with the knot he had tied, he tightened it, stood up and said, “As for you, Uzik, take care of the house and the hives. And especially of Aunt Miriam.”
I tried to look directly into his eyes, but couldn’t. He was too busy locking the valise and dragging it out of the shed, giving me orders the whole time as if I were a stranger. Don’t forget to feed the chickens and lock the gate to the yard with the heavy padlock every single night. Remember to pay Mohammed Daudi for his work on the first of every month, and be careful a swarm of bees doesn’t attack when you open the cover of the hive and fold back the burlap sack sticky with propolis and wax. And never ever go near the English air base that borders our land. And if anybody asks where your older brother has disappeared to, tell them he’s taken a boat to Italy to bring back some less aggressive, stingless queen bees that will produce thicker honey than ours do.
It was a long list, and I only half-listened. He didn’t mention school, maybe because he knew it was hopeless. Finally, just before two strangers arrived in a van to pick him up, he said, “And promise me you won’t cause any trouble. No pranks while I’m gone,” and added as an afterthought, “It’ll be worth your while. I’ll bring you a present from Europe.”
Wearing striped pajamas that were once Imri’s, I watched them pull away. I didn’t understand why he had to leave me alone with Aunt Miriam for such a long time. He was hardly ever home as it was. I was furious at the people from the Jewish Agency who had sent him on a mission right before the harvesting season. And most of all, I was afraid he was leaving me for a place where mysterious, incomprehensible things happen that have nothing at all to do with bees and honey. I ran after the van, calling, “Imri, Imri, don’t go!” When he didn’t answer, I shouted, “Something terrible’s going to happen and it’ll be your fault!” But my shouts were in vain. Either Imri didn’t hear me or he chose to ignore my threats.
The van rocked its way along the narrow dirt road behind our yard. I saw the two strangers clap him on the back and heard them laugh loudly. One of them said, “There are such beauties waiting for you there, “ and I recalled what Zionka’s mother said about elegant and educated European women. I hoped none of them would agree to have a boyfriend who smelled of mothballs. The sound of singing drifted over from the English air base, and I knew that the pilots were polishing off another one of the cases of beer they bought in Shmariyahu’s grocery in our village every morning.
I sat on the floor of the toolshed. The lighted kerosene lamp scattered the old smells. Imri isn’t especially neat, but Aunt Miriam never yells at him about it. Our father’s old clothes were strewn all around. I couldn’t remember him ever wearing such fancy clothes. I gathered them into a pile, and didn’t find even one piece of women’s clothing. I smelled the mothballs for a minute, making an effort to remember. But I gave it up immediately. I’d be late for school again and my teacher would say, “So, what can you expect from Uzik the troublemaker.”
I could’ve pulled a trick or two to delay Imri. If I’d taken the air out of the van’s tires, or opened a hive and let the bees out, then maybe he would’ve had to cancel his trip. But it was too late now.
Translated by Sondra Silverstone.