Someone is Walking on the Moon

Some friendships begin in a moment of magic and, like fireworks, explode with a bang. Others, grow slowly, suddenly flower like cherry-blossom, and then quickly wither. But my friendship with Arik was simply an inheritance, because my father and his father were best friends. In fact, they were like brothers because neither of them had a sibling of their own.

Our Dads grew up together in a small village on the banks of a great river in Europe. They sat next to each other at school, joined the Zionist Youth Movement and remained inseparable when they hid from the Nazis in a bombed out attic. Still together, they set sail for Palestine on a ship carrying illegal emigrants and Holocaust survivors and together they were arrested by the British and were deported to Cyprus. Finally, they even married two best friends, one of whom became my mother.

Arik is one year older than me and we were even given similar nicknames. I was called Orik - an abbreviation of Liora and he was named Arik - short for Ariye. But only the school year book kept our real names, although he lived in the desert, South of Israel and I lived in Tel Aviv.

Our fathers did everything together - except for dying. One night Arik's Dad went to bed and never woke up. 

On the morning of the funeral Mom woke me up early and made me swear that I would keep the death a secret.

"Arik doesn't know", she said, "and you cannot tell him".

Dad stood next to her like a statue. His face had the colour of ashes but his eyes remained dry. I kept telling myself that grown-ups don't cry, not realizing then - perhaps rejecting the horrible thought - that Dad would never again see his best friend, and never again have such a soul mate.

Mom said "Arik will be staying with you during the seven days of mourning. You two will hang out and play as usual." Then she added "I will notify your math teacher that you won't be attending summer lessons."

I vowed to keep my mouth shut. Deep in my heart I thanked Arik's dead father for giving me such a gift, freeing me from those hateful math lessons that made my life such a misery. Before they left the house Mom said "Remember Orik, this is a test of your friendship", while Dad still remained silent. The word ‘friendship' made his body shrink, but this was something I recalled only years later. 

We were all alone - two children in an empty house without a single adult to tell us what to do. We could gorge ourselves on lollipops for breakfast, brush our teeth at lunchtime. Throw the hated math notebooks onto the balcony and move the furniture around, turning the house into a spaceship. I didn't need to ask Arik what he wanted to be when he grew up because he had always dreamed of becoming an astronaut.

We kept our pyjamas on from morning till night. We practiced whistling, getting on the nerves of our next door neighbour Bronca, a Polish new immigrant who always took a nap between two and four.

It was like the biggest holiday ever. The only thing that spoilt it was the heavy secret I carried inside me. Yet, Arik was so happy that sometimes it seemed the secret existed only in my imagination. He believed his Mom and Dad had gone on a trip and would be back in a week with a special present.

On our first night I tossed and turned as Arik slept peacefully on the folding bed beside mine. I was relieved when he dozed off before me, because that way I was sure not to give the secret away in my sleep.

It was the first time that I had shared a room with a boy. If only the girls in my class knew...

I watched Arik's peaceful face and instead of sheep I counted breaths. This was a math exam I would easily have passed.

The moon peaked at our window, a yellow spot that seeped light into what once was called "The Children's Room", even though at that time I was an only child.

"You see, Moon, I know how to keep a secret", I told the yellow spot, almost in pride. But it was as mute as my father on that early morning.

On the second day we wandered the streets of Tel Aviv and Arik was amazed by how green everything looked compared to the desert where he lived. He didn't mention his home at all. I also avoided the word ‘Dad', and every time I tried to banish it, the secret started to stir up inside me like a thin moon that keeps on expanding.

I tried so hard to turn it off.

We strolled along the banks of the Yarkon River. It was still in floods of water then and full of fish. But we didn't have much success in catching any. With our improvised fishing rod - nothing more than a tree branch with some thread from Mom's sewing box attached to the end - not a single fish rose to the bait. Although I quickly lost all hope, Arik was patient and tried to talk to the fish, promising them that life out of water would be great. At that very moment I saw Shula and Gila, the twins from my class, coming back from their summer math lessons, so I ran away and hid behind the eucalyptus tree.

"What's the matter?" Arik asked, "What are you afraid of?"

And the yellow spot suddenly flickered again.

On the next day we went to Reading beach where they had already started to build the huge chimneys for the new power plant. Apart from the two regular swimmers who came even in winter, the seashore was completely empty. The lashing wind sprayed salt all over our faces and when I licked them my lips tasted of dried tears.

Arik stretched out on the beach, his eyes wide open towards the sky. For a moment it seemed that he was about to ask something and my whole body began to shake. But he only said "What a pity the moon can't be seen during the day. Till nightfall it seems that the moon doesn't exist at all."

I said "Perhaps such a rare window of time can be found".

When the moon is already up and the sun has not yet set - that's what I told Arik. Isn't this the fragile moment when the two best friends meet for the last time before their final goodbye?

"When I become an astronaut", Arik declared, "this rare moment between light and darkness would be the time I would fly." And he promised to connect the two distant friends forever. Then he laughed and I swallowed my remark about how this enforced goodbye was not their fault.

Arik also laughed during the night - this time in his sleep. Even though my whole body ached with tiredness, I again held myself from dropping off before him. I closed the shutter again and again, but the yellow spot managed to sneak in.

"Nosy Moon, what business is it of yours?" I whispered. "Just tell me your secret, how do you get to be so perfect month after month?"

Again Arik laughed into his pillow, his eyes tightly closed, and I asked myself whether he would ever laugh again once he knew what I knew.

Every morning I counted the day out loud. Arik was sure that I was sad because of the time already gone.

"Yes, time flies, but I always prefer to think of what's still lie ahead", he said cheerfully. Waiting for something good to happen was even sweeter than the thing itself. Then he began to whistle.

Bronca, our next door neighbour, hammered on the door yelling "Scandal! It's disgraceful for children to be left alone without proper supervision." She even threatened to call the police.

Arik opened the door and invited her in, explaining that in space flights surveillance was crucial - a matter of life and death - because it was the astronaut's only contact with ground control. He even had the nerve to suggest that Bronca go in for some special training in Houston Texas -America, where they were getting ready to launch the Apollo 11 on its journey to the moon.

"Crazy kids"! Bronca screamed in Yiddish and slammed the door in our faces.

Only because of our neighbour the idea of training came into Arik's mind. After all, astronauts had to cope with surviving in conditions of weightlessness. So we rolled over, jumped up and down, lifted our legs high and twisted our bodies into strange positions. We even attempted to walk up the wall, while Arik tried to describe what everything looked like from the ceiling and taught me how to walk upside down.

"Remember Orik, even when you become just a tiny spot, I will always know where you are and wave to you from above."

"And how will I see you?" I desperately asked.

"Just look to where the moon is".

And he promised that in the future astronauts would be able to take friends along for a ride.

I kept quiet. I wasn't sure that in three days he would still want to be my friend.

Then Arik said "Dad promised me..." and this was the first and last time that he mentioned his father.

I can't remember the end of the sentence.

In the days that followed I became a perfectly trained astronaut. Arik told me that space travellers eat powdered ice cream and they put their safety belts on before falling asleep, so that they don't float in their dreams and collide with the ceiling. "Beware of the danger of crashing, Orik", he warned. 

How can someone go to sleep and not wake up? The question tortured me. I tried to imagine Mom and Dad coming back, announcing that it had all been a big mistake. Arik's father had simply fallen into a very deep sleep and had just woken up. I even made myself forget the secret for an entire day and pushed the yellow spot away from me, so it would float in some distant space.

I had frozen it... like powdered ice cream. 

The entire house was upside down. Only our beds were in their proper place. Arik wanted to swap beds so that he could sleep under the window, close to the sky.

"Perhaps one day I'll have a brother", I whispered.

"An astronaut has to get used to being alone", said Arik. "Because up there it seems he's the only person left in the world".

On the sixth night the yellow spot returned and expanded inside me with more speed than a spacecraft orbiting the earth. The word ‘secret' was replaced by ‘lie'.

What kind of a friend are you, Orik? Lying to your best friend! What a traitor you are!

"I'm so sorry, Arik"...

Only then did I realize that I was talking out loud.

Suddenly Arik was wide awake. As though he hadn't been asleep at all.

"Who are you talking to, Liora?"

It was the first time that he had ever called me by my real name.

We held hands, creating a bridge between the swapped beds and thus we finally fell asleep.

These seven days of mourning happened during man's first landing on the moon. On the seventh day the banks of the Yarkon River were completely deserted. Even the two regular swimmers didn't show up on Reading beach. In every house in Tel Aviv people were glued to the radio, listening to the live broadcast from space. Bronca already had a television set but all she got on her screen were fuzzy, snow like spots. Even though we couldn't find the small transistor because the house was so upside down, we heard Neil Armstrong, a real astronaut, speaking from every window. A faint voice travelling across space "One small step for man - One giant leap for mankind." All I could think of was that this brave man wouldn't fall over and crash and I didn't know if it was the earth that was shaking or it was me.

And as Arik and I were torn apart, I held on tightly to the note that Mom had written to the math teacher. "Liora's absence from class was due to family reasons. Please accept my apology. Begging your forgiveness..."

Nobody ever explained to me how Arik was told that his father had gone on the longest journey in the world. How did my childhood friend respond to the cruel fact that his dad would never be coming back? Over the years we never mentioned those seven days we shared in an empty house in Tel Aviv. Yet they kept orbiting within us in an endless loop. A rare moment between darkness and light... Or perhaps the other way round.

Time didn't stand still and Arik grew up but didn't fulfill his dream. Instead of an astronaut he became a doctor, specializing in Psychiatry. He still lives in the desert in southern Israel, trying to heal the pain of so many wounded souls, while I wandered the world before finally coming home to Tel Aviv without having learned anything about math.

People will say that our friendship didn't stand up to the test, but for me it will forever be like the light of the moon - reflected from a distance.

At the end of the seventh day, I got into bed fully dressed. My entire body was shaking and I covered myself with extra blankets. From behind the wall I could hear sobbing. It was my father. I covered my ears and buried myself in the pillow but that didn't stop the tears from getting through.

Mom also cried, even though she was lucky and hadn't lost her best friend.

All night long I watched the yellow spot trembling on my window. The light gradually dimmed and I knew that soon this shining object would disappear completely, without my having to switch it off. Finally, darkness became my shelter. "Someone is walking on the moon", I heard myself whisper before closing my eyes.

Translated from Hebrew by Dan Gillon 

Dan Gillon, born in Tel Aviv, was taken by his parents to live in England shortly after Israel's War of Independence in which his brother Yoram was killed in one of the war's battles. A graduate of the London school of Economics and Harvard, Dan has lived most of his life in the UK and the US where he worked as an editor, freelance journalist and broadcaster. He also lived and in East Africa where he established small scale pharmaceutical production units in remote areas with no access to basic medicines. Completing a circle, Dan returned to Israel in 2004 and began translating contemporary Israeli literature and political history into English. Recent translations include Nava Semel's Beginner's Love and A Front Without a Rearguard by Shlomo Ben Ami.



Itzhak Artzi and his best friend Dov (Berel) Shiber, 1946


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