Assistant Professor of English Margot Singer has been lauded in the past for her work in both fiction and non-fiction. The acclaim continued in 2007 with the release of her first book, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press), which won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was featured on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
In settings from Jerusalem to Manhattan, from the archaeological ruins of the Galilee to Kathmandu, Singer presents characters who struggle to piece together the history and myths of their family’s past. The book takes its title from the name of the western border region of the Russian empire within which Jews were required to live during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through nine linked short stories, The Pale of Settlement explores the borderland between Israelis and American Jews, emigrants and expatriates, and vanished homelands and the dangerous world in which we live today.
In the following excerpt of one story from The Pale of Settlement, reprinted with the publisher’s permission, we meet the aging Israeli archaeologist Avraham, who has lost his wife to senility and who stands to lose his scholarly standing to revisionists. Meanwhile, he has become consumed with finding a new understanding of his deceased sister and his own past in the diary of her youth.
The day was a write-off as far as work was concerned. His editor would just have to wait. Avraham put on a baseball cap (a gift from one of the Texan volunteers) and set out for the long walk to Ezrath Nashim. He still felt groggy despite the two cups of strong coffee he’d made after getting that damned reporter off the phone. He walked along the hillside road, ignoring the pain that radiated through his lower back. It was good to walk.
Maybe today his wife would recognize him. He still held out that hope, even though he couldn’t remember the last time Eva had had a “good” day. Usually she just muttered at him in Hungarian, or stared into space. Or maybe she’d mistake him for her father, as she sometimes did. The worst days were when she didn’t even mistake him for someone else. Who are you? she’d shout, straining at her chair. What are you doing here? It was a good question. Still, she’d been his wife for over forty years.
It was strange, Avraham thought, measuring his pace as the road began to slope uphill, how the biggest events in life weren’t necessarily ones you wrote about, the way that you’d expect. Avraham knew that Leah met her husband, Ezra, during those first years in New York, yet he hardly showed up in the diary at all. He was like background noise, a presence but far from the main event, showing up in glimpses between descriptions of trips to Jones Beach with Doris, or dates with Len or Rich or Bill. Ezi was madly in love with her, that much was plain, even between the lines. I said something about how wonderful it would be to have a child someday, and he gave me one of those looks of his and said, “Don’t talk like that.” He knows she’s flirting with the idea, trying it on like a too-expensive gown. But he’s familiar, a fellow Israeli, a safe bet – a man she can imagine being married to. But is marriage what she wants at twenty-one? I’m afraid he does care too much (and yet I don’t want him not to care). She stumbles over the double negatives, trying to convince herself. Still, he is a good friend and I do feel happy when he’s around. Maybe she’s afraid to let him become more than just a friend. Or maybe it’s more complicated than that. Maybe he simply doesn’t make her knees grow weak, her heart rise to her throat. But Ezi is persistent if nothing else. If he can’t knock her off her feet, he’ll make sure he’s there to catch her when she falls.
Avraham stopped in a shady spot near the crest of the hill, taking out his handkerchief to wipe his brow. He was breathing hard, his heart flopping like a fish. Eitan would be angry if he found out he’d walked all this way. He was as imperious as Abba now that he was a doctor; ever since he started to lose his hair, he looked just like him, too. Funny how the genes persist. The breeze riffled through the leaves overhead, cooling the sweat that trickled down his back beneath his shirt. Even now, he could remember the day Abba died as clearly as if it had happened just the other day, instead of thirty-nine years ago in July. He remembered standing in the Post Office, his sweat evaporating in the stale breath of a fan, hollering through the partition to the telegraph clerk. Abba had a massive heart attack. Stop. Come home next flight Pan Am. Stop.
But Leah hadn’t caught the next flight home. She’d arrived in Jerusalem three days later, after Abba was already in the ground, without even calling to let them know that she was on her way. He almost didn’t recognize her when he opened the door and found her there in that short black dress, her hair cut shorter, in a modern flip. He hadn’t seen her in over two years. They went together to the cemetery the next day. Leah knelt by the grave and touched the freshly overturned dirt with her fingertips. She picked up a little stone and weighed it in her hand.
Leah stayed in Jerusalem that whole summer of 1962, there in the Sanhedria flat. He and Eva had already moved to Givat Shaul, and for the rest of that summer he was digging down at Tel Arad, trying to make headway on his Ph.D. Leah was hardly a child then, and yet, now that he looked back, he felt guilty for leaving her there alone. He didn’t get around to clearing out the flat until after she’d gone back to New York, and he was dismayed to find Abba’s toothbrush still on the bathroom sink, his trousers still draped over the arm of the bedroom chair. He had to fight back the urge to douse the place in kerosene and send it up in flames. In the end, he’d packed up the mantle clock, his mother’s Pesach dishes and Shabbat candlesticks, some photographs – Leah’s diary, as well. She didn’t ask for anything and neither did Zalman. He kept those things, and gave away the rest.
Eva was sitting in a chair to the side of her bed, her head lolling forward, asleep. Her chest rose and fell with each shuddering breath, a trickle of drool pooling in a dark stain on her green hospital issue shirt. Everything here had a greenish tinge – the walls, the tile floor, fluorescent light on skin. He looked around; there was no other chair. He sat down on the bed instead and, after a moment of consideration, tucked the pillow behind his neck and stretched out his legs. The walk must have tired him out, after all; a spreading fatigue weighed on him like the lead vests used as X-ray shields. They’d strapped Eva to her chair again, and for a moment her arms jerked back against the restraints, then went limp again.
Avraham always talked to Eva, the way people talk to victims of deep comas or catastrophic strokes, as if, at some remote level, language might still get through. He told her about his visit to the university, about the disastrous drop-off in volunteers, the stalled article, about finding Leah’s diary. He didn’t tell her he had read it, though – she wouldn’t have approved of his snooping into Leah’s private words. Eva had strict ideas about peoples’ boundaries, the limits of one’s space. She’d never pried into Avraham’s personal things – never peeked into his mail or poked around inside his desk. And because she trusted him, in such a complete and unjustifiable way, he never hid anything from her. Or maybe he’d just understood that she would find out anyway.
A nurse entered with the lunch cart, sliding a tray onto the bedside table, but Eva didn’t stir. The nurse frowned at Avraham, muttering in Russian, and backed out of the room. The tray contained a square of grayish meat, some limp green beans and potato cubes, an anemic-looking salad, a cup of chocolate mousse. Avraham stuck his finger into the swirl of whipped cream on top of the mousse and gave it a hopeful lick. But the meal was kosher and the cream wasn’t made from milk, and it left a chemical aftertaste on his tongue. He didn’t look forward to trying to make Eva eat when she woke up.
Avraham took off his glasses, resting them on his chest, and shut his eyes. Eva would have laughed at his attempts to piece together Leah’s story, his fanciful theories based on the most tenuous of facts. Young girls keep secrets, she would have said. The most obvious explanations are usually the truth. Probably she was right. Leah went back to New York, married Ezi, raised a daughter and two sons. She made a good life for herself; no one could ask for more. Still, there was something that bothered him about the last section of her diary, something in the chronology that didn’t quite seem right. But right now he was too tired to think. The muffled sounds of the hospital closed over him like water, and he slept.
Burial Jar ~
The jars lay buried in virgin soil beneath the earthen floor of houses built in the sixteenth century bce. Inside the jars – infants’ bones. Tiny skulls and femurs, vertebrae and ribs, curled like crustaceans in their shells. Milk-filled juglets for the afterlife resting by their heads. These were not child sacrifices, as at Hinnom – not with so many burial jars beneath the floor of every house. This was how life was then.
Folded tightly inside wombs of clay, babies dreamed their mothers floating overhead, while underneath the soles of their bare feet, the mothers felt their babies move again as they’d once moved inside of them – the tiny spasm of a hiccup, the ripple of an outstretched hand.
Avraham woke to a sudden scream and shouts.
What is this man doing in my bed? Get him out of here! Out!
The Russian nurse who’d brought the lunch was bending over Eva, trying to stop her from tipping over the chair. It is just your husband, Madame Bar-On, she said. Spaseeba, calm down, please.
Avraham sat quickly upright, sending his glasses skittering to the floor. He swung his feet off the bed, squinting to see where the glasses had gone. The room was washed in shadow, and the food on the tray beside him looked congealed. How long had he been asleep?
What are you talking about? Eva shouted, jerking her head from side to side.
Avraham crouched down on his hands and knees, groping for the glasses along the floor. A sudden surge of anger rose like reflux in his chest. Why did he bother? Eva was as good as dead.
Don’t worry, the nurse said, bending to pick up the glasses, which had slid beneath Eva’s chair. The nurse gave him a thin smile that revealed the glint of a gold front tooth. She don’t know what she say.
What is he doing here? Eva said again, whimpering now, tears of confusion and rage running down her face.
The glasses were missing one lens, but Avraham put them on anyway and continued to sweep his hands along the gritty floor. There was the lens, over by the bedside table. He snapped it back into place and rose, wiping the lopsided glasses on his shirt.
Don’t worry, he said. I’m leaving now.
Out in front of the hospital, a taxi was idling in the sun. Where could he go? Not to the university. Not downtown: since the Sbarro bombing, all the coffeehouses were dead. He fought the urge to get out of the cab and check into the hospital himself. There someone would bring him meals on trays and fresh white sheets. Maybe there he could sleep. The driver twisted his head back, turning up his palms. Nu? he said. Avraham gave up and gave him his address.
He could hear the telephone ringing inside the flat as he fumbled with his keys, but by the time he pushed open the door, it had stopped. With the blinds shut against the sun, the flat had the dim and airless quality of a tomb. It even smelled unfamiliar, after the antiseptic hospital air – it had the stale, decaying breath of an old man. He sat down at the table, leaving the blinds closed. The pile of junk mail, the stained coffee mug, the notepad with its cryptic scrawl, all looked like archaic artifacts, the detritus of someone else’s life. He thought of Leah, there in the Sanhedria flat with a dead man’s toothbrush and discarded clothes. She wrote almost nothing in the diary that final summer, as if she couldn’t bear to listen to her own voice. Enough drivel about how I feel, enough boring self-analysis. Someday I’ll go back through all this and think, how could I have thought it was so important? Maybe nothing was worth remembering after all. I can’t write, not today at least. I’m tired of this book, of talking to myself. I never feel that I’ve quite captured this moment or that scene, having left out, on purpose or by accident, the most important thing. Flipping back now through these pages, all I notice are the gaps. She’d given up on words, on trying to preserve the past.
She was right, Avraham thought. What was gone was gone. For what was he trying to hang on? He pushed his chair back and stood up, and with sudden resolve went into the kitchen and pulled a garbage bag from the cabinet beneath the sink. Why leave the job to Eitan, after he was dead? He might as well start now. He went into the living room, pulled open the armoire. Into the garbage bag he threw the decks of cards, the empty eyeglass case, the useless coins. His heart was hammering in his chest. The next drawer was filled with archaeology magazines and yellowed newspaper clippings, decades old – into the bag they went.
Words, words, words, Leah had written, near the end. Such a waste.
So, he thought. Leah went back to New York in the fall of 1962 and got married in October and in the spring of 1963 Susan was born. May, he was quite sure. He counted backward on his fingers. Babies born in May are conceived in August. And in August, Leah was still in Israel; this much was a fact. Had Ezra followed her to Jerusalem? Or had she been seeing someone else? Could it – could it have been Y?
Avraham sank onto the couch and took his glasses off. Here he was, doing it again. Constructing an impossible story from the barest facts. Still, preposterous as it was, it made a certain sense. He imagined Leah back in New York on Yom Kippur, beating her fist against her chest. She would have known she was pregnant by then. Did Ezi ever consider that the baby might not be his? Possibly Leah wasn’t sure herself. Possibly Ezi never questioned why her eyes brimmed so suddenly with the urgent need he took for love, attributing it to her father’s death, her lonely summer back in Jerusalem. Or maybe she confessed the truth to him and he used it to secure his power over her, to bind her to him. We’ll get married, he would have said, and everything will be okay. No one ever has to know.
Avraham fetched the diary from his bedside table, flipping quickly to the end. I hate these layers of memory I carry with me all the time, the tightness in my throat, the tension across my forehead. I try to speak but only hot, weak tears come out; I’m crying even as I write these words. Nothing has turned out the way I thought it would. Her suffering wasn’t necessarily on account of Abba’s death. But he would never know.
He went back to the living room for the garbage bag, dragged it to the bedroom and over to the writing desk. He turned the key and pulled down the lid, pulling Eva’s things from the pigeonholes and drawers – old letters, notepads, pencil stubs, clippings, matchbooks, photographs. He dumped it all into the bag, continuing until the desk was emptied out. The garbage bag bulged, gaping, on the floor. He walked over to the bed, and after a long moment, threw the diary in. Then he tied the top of the bag into a knot and heaved it over his shoulder, carried it down the stairs and outside to the street. He swung the bag into the green garbage bin, brushed his hands off on his pants. It was done. He would write and say that he was sorry, but the diary could not be found.