Translated from the Hebrew by Maayan Eitan & Oded Even Or

 

When the factory shut down, everyone told me it was for the best. I was happy to be free, and I repeated to myself the consoling words they said to me. I went to an unemployment office in a government building located near an army base. The clerk seemed to like me, maybe because he sensed I was not a troublemaker. He was interested in what happened at the factory, asked how I felt, took my contact information, and a week later I got a job working for a cleaning contractor at a private hospice.

I worked for three-and-a-half hours a day, between one and four thirty in the morning. I got minimum wage but because it was a part time job, I only got a third of the monthly minimum salary. They told me that the contractor was making a profit off the money that he received for every unemployed person whose benefits were revoked for refusing this poorly-paid job.

At first I swept and washed the floor meticulously, but then they explained to me how it was actually done. We would flood the floor with water and then hide in the rooms, locking ourselves inside and leaving the master key in the lock. Some of us would just turn on a faucet and disappear for a few hours. Sometimes we slept together in empty rooms, at times even in the rooms of wealthier terminal patients. They had better beds there, and were located on higher floors, with a view of the ocean that none of the patients were healthy enough to appreciate, but which looked good in the hospital brochure.

We were all relatively young. According to the labor law, anyone over thirty-five doesn’t have to take just any job. A month after I started, a girl I once saw crying at the unemployment office also arrived. At first I felt that fate had sent her to me. I tend to fall in love quickly, but I am also shy around women, and by the time I got around to talking to her she had already hooked up with someone else at the hospice. A few weeks later, I found out that she had gotten engaged to that employee she slept with, a compulsive flirter from somewhere up north, an Arab named Issa who had banged a few other blondes who worked there before her. She and Issa ran away to Arizona some time later without telling anyone.

Because my salary was low, I had to move back in with my parents. It had been years since I left home. All in all, they were patient with me and happy to have me back, even though they had hoped that I would have made more out of myself with my geography degree, which they had pushed me to complete.

I was tired in the mornings. I used to wander between second-hand bookshops. I wasn’t a favored customer. The saleswomen weren’t taken with me because they had a taste for literary fiction, while I read books on how to be successful and stock-market investment guides, and also because I fell asleep on the open pages. Though I didn’t really have any ambitions, I was captivated by these books. There was something in their coherent and assured style, and the optimistic examples they presented, that improved my mood for a while. You could say that I was attracted to the artistic side of these books. Occasionally, I imagined meeting the big shot writer of one of these books. In a hotel lobby, for example. I pictured how he would approach me and offer me the seat next to his, and how I would make myself comfortable on the plush sofa, and he would invite me to ask him something about his book. I didn’t know how to continue the dream from there.

The course that my life had taken had left me in complete despair by the time I ran into handsome Rani at the Baccio Cafe. Rani and I had gone to the same high school, and I always let him cheat off me. He was a good guy all in all. I liked him and predicted that he was destined for greatness, and so he really needed to impress me now. Rani told me he had a senior position at the HR department of the Liptz Group, a multi-branch conglomerate. He was especially enthusiastic about the tycoon Eli Liptz, though Rani said that he had only seen Liptz once in all the years he’d been working for the group, and even that one time they had been separated by a soundproof window. Few people had ever seen Liptz. It was apparently part of his charm. ‘Liptz is one of those people who see the full picture,’ Rani told me.

Liptz was a legitimate and respected millionaire who shied away from the spotlight and didn’t give interviews. He owned a newspaper, a small television station and a large bank, which he had bought from the government. He was also about to open a private prison. He wasn’t the type who would run off with the money or deal in arms.

Rani liked me a lot, the way only beautiful men can like an old friend, and so he set me up with a job interview in the offices of one of Liptz’s subsidiary companies, on the third floor of a transparent building in a north Tel Aviv neighborhood of upscale, glass-and-steel offices.

When I came for my appointment two days later, I realized that the company had already interviewed quite a few people for the job. There was a certain desperation in the face of the man who welcomed me, a balding man in his forties named Muli, whose scalp dug tightly into his skull in a manner that testified to success and efficiency beyond compare. I left the meeting feeling good, though Muli had spent it quarrelling with someone from another department and wasn’t really focused on our interview.

I wasn’t told anything about the nature of the job, but I’m not a curious person, and as long as they gave me the job, I didn’t really care.

Two days later, they asked me to come in urgently. They didn’t say if I had gotten it, but a secretary made me sign several confidentiality agreements, insurance documents and various contracts.

I wondered if the job required physical labor of any kind. Muli said that the job was actually very easy and told me what it paid, which was five times my salary at the sub-machine gun factory. I was struck dumb with shock, and he thought the pay wasn’t enough for me, apologized and explained that I wouldn’t have any expenses because room and board were included, and that of course this was only the entry level salary. I asked if it was legal and he said of course, and that they had already checked with the police about me. Then he rushed out. There was no one but me left in the office. I waited for another five minutes and left.

A week later, he ordered me to hurry and come up north to start my new job right away. He was already there, he said angrily, and was waiting for me so he could explain to me what I needed to do. I quickly packed a suitcase and asked my astounded parents to return my janitor uniform to the hospice.

I took the train north and got off in Nahariya, near the Lebanon border, and then took a taxi. It dropped me off fifty meters after Banana Beach, where the railroad from Haifa to Beirut passed during the time of the British mandate. The colonial tracks cut long slits along the road. Thin walls of reeds grew on either side.

Muli waited, wearing a three-piece suit and cufflinks. He was tired and sweat trickled down his creased bald head. He wore a Donald Duck tie which he probably thought made him look like a creative businessman. One of the business management journals I read recommended dressing casually when meeting a new employee to make him feel at home. I assumed that was the reason for the tie. He asked whether I was curious to know what my job was. I told him it didn’t really matter. He smiled kindly and said I was a character.

He put his hand over my back, another gesture which the management journal recommended for first meetings, and said that my job was to watch over two thirteen-year-old twins named Coral and Tal. He told me that the most important thing was to never argue with them. This was what impressed him the most in my interview – that I was so placid. I nodded. He said they gave me the job because I was unmoved when he shouted at someone who didn’t do anything wrong. He said that the boss, Eli Liptz – he used his first name, Eli – loved the twins very much, but that they were a handful. ‘They are unpredictable.’ And he said that the job did not include anything beyond what we had discussed and whatever unforeseeable things might be needed. He said I seem fragile, so I might not make it for even two months, which was how long my predecessor had lasted, ‘But he was arrogant and you aren’t. That’s what makes them fail.’

I had some time to get to know the area. The girls’ quarters were refurbished and luxurious, with arches made of stone and wood. My room, a modern but quite depressing space, was attached to another shabby room which housed Ali, a young Arab film student who was the handyman. Outside was a hidden guard post, and another guard patrolled the beach lazily, idling under an umbrella when the sun got too hot. A crumbling wire fence surrounded the compound and extended a few meters into the sea.

The skies were the uniform pale blue of a studio commercial. A shapeless cloud emerged at exactly four thirty p.m. and remained stuck there until six, just where the sun was supposed to set. The cloud muddied the sunset – that moment when the sun transforms from a frightening, blinding creature to a not-so-terrible red circle.

Beside the pool, several empty bungalows belonging to an abandoned Dutch-owned resort faded under the light of the moon. The resort was shut down when mortar shells were fired from Lebanon during one of the recent wars. Liptz had bought the land and moved the twins there. North of the estate was Achziv National Park, a series of ancient houses and a small, neglected burial ground for Arab sheikhs, which now served as a plastic bottle dump.

Ali was the doleful, silent type, but he liked me a lot – much more, he said, than the guy I was hired to replace, ‘who became an arrogant bourgeois dictator.’ He told me about intrigues in which he was involved. These intrigues multiplied. He ended almost every conversation by warning me not to go to the prostitutes up north. He claimed that my predecessor frequented prostitutes. He constantly talked about prostitutes and why you should avoid them. It wasn’t hard to understand that he actually did go to prostitutes, like a chubby girl who keeps talking about dieting.

During the first week I didn’t see the girls, who were on vacation in Zanzibar. After a few dull days they arrived. They were almost completely identical – black hair, angelic faces, and slightly plump in a sweet way. One of them wore a striped shirt that accentuated her breasts, which were very small, and the other one wore a sweatshirt. They both wore yellow skirts. They were very quiet, and their equine eyes, almost expressionless, looked like margarine. They didn’t greet me. I didn’t greet them either. Ali introduced me, ‘This is Arnon, he’s here to replace . . .’ but they didn’t stop to wait for the end of the sentence, and instead walked quietly to their rooms, glancing at him in disgust and treating me like I was nothing but air.

 

The work was monotonous. If you could call it work at all, as my tasks weren’t really defined. The two girls didn’t go to school for some reason. I would wait for them to leave their rooms. I think I was supposed to report if they ran away or killed each other. I wasn’t allowed to do anything anyway, other than passively monitor their activities. In fact, I wasn’t even supposed to monitor them, but to look the other way. They needed someone who wouldn’t do anything, and I was the right man for the job.

Even in high school they used to say that I was unexcitable. All my life I had problems holding on to a girlfriend for more than six months, because girls want someone who shows some enthusiasm. After I graduated from university this trait made it harder to find a job befitting my education. But suddenly it had landed me this well-paying job.

The two girls played all day long, watched movies, and occasionally had private lessons. The girls wouldn’t let some of the private tutors inside the house. One guitar teacher left in a huff and wouldn’t take his final paycheck. The most peculiar of them was Lev Goldtuch, a mustached and well-mannered Holocaust survivor from Nahariya, whom Eli Liptz brought in to teach the girls Jewish history. He was over ninety, an elegant and noble man who enjoyed trying to speak French with me. He probably mixed me up with my arrogant predecessor.

I learned that Goldtuch had saved one of the Liptzes during the Holocaust. In return, they brought him in to teach the girls. I once sat in on one of those classes. Goldtuch delivered a sermon about the woes that rained upon the Jewish people, and told of his own trials attempting to escape the Valley of Slaughter. The girls mumbled ‘Wow’ and ‘That’s awesome’ and whenever, overcome with emotion, he closed his eyes, the girls would spank each other on their yellow-skirted buttocks, taking advantage of his impaired hearing. When I asked Muli how much I was supposed to pay Goldtuch, because it was my job to take care of these things, I learned that he taught them for free. ‘Liptz is doing him a favor by giving him work. It’s the most important thing in his life right now. They gave him a chance to be close to the family. It’s worth more than a paycheck. Lev is already used to living on bread and tea in a one bedroom. What would he even do with the money? This is a man who has suffered so much.’ To my surprise, Lev also paid for his taxi out of pocket, and sometimes he would bring the girls small gifts that he wrapped himself, which were either thrown away or lost in the girls’ bedroom.

 

I started every morning by making a soft-boiled egg and slicing up a pomelo. The girls were serviced by an organic caterer, though they would also order pizza from the nearby gas station. They never said good morning to me. Sometimes they would smile at me, but that was only when they were smiling anyway. After breakfast I used to go to the beach and watch the ants. This occupation could last several hours, depending on developments in the ants’ situation. I especially liked watching them struggle to haul off things that the sea spat out on the beach. A seed, for example. Occasionally there were long struggles between two groups of dozens of ants, each fighting over which direction to take the seed. They would encircle the seed, then flatten the sand around it. The seed would move in a certain direction, then a backup brigade of ants from another anthill would show up and carry it in another direction. Sometimes I came to the aid of one of the sides by killing the rival ants, or nudging the seed in the desired direction with a stick.

I was tasked with an actual mission only once. Muli asked me to go to headquarters of a small local newspaper called Nahariya Citizen and scold them. It was after the girls were mentioned in an article. The mention was positive and no deeply personal details were divulged. It was quite obvious that the piece was only published in an attempt at flattery.

The town of Nahariya was home to several tiny newspapers that scuffled with each other over every little thing, and it stood to reason that one of them would eventually mention the twin daughters of a local magnate. But Muli was furious, as if they had pulled one over on him, and asked me to make it clear to the editor of Nahariya Citizen that Eli Liptz wasn’t happy. I assumed the ageing millionaire didn’t even know about the piece.

I felt uncomfortable lodging such a dubious complaint with the newspaper, especially since Liptz’s own television channel aired cruel gossip, day and night. I was sure they would throw me out, and so I reformulated Muli’s rage into a sort of a generalized comment. But the editor was still terrified. He said the reporter would be punished.

The piece in the gossip section was completely innocuous: it was about some hairdresser named Beber, a Japanese hair-straightening professional with international diplomas, who had thrown a party for his salon’s first anniversary and invited a bunch of local celebrities. The piece included a list of their names, which were completely unknown to me. Among other things, it was mentioned that the twins were Beber’s customers, and that they had even called to congratulate him from Martinique (they were in Zanzibar).

The editor was horrified to hear that Liptz was displeased. He buried his head in his hands. Trembling, he offered me some brandy, and when I accepted, he quickly returned the bottle to its place, forgetting that he had offered me a drink. His eyes glistened. He wanted to satisfy all my whims, but I didn’t have any. Muli had no specific demands or plans for retribution. The editor’s hands shook under the desk.

He asked whether I would like to see the reporter get fired. I said it wasn’t necessary. He still tried to make me stay. As I left the newspaper’s offices, a withdrawn man in his fifties, hair disheveled, was rushing in. The expression on his face led me to assume he was the reporter, and that he was apparently called in so that I could witness him getting fired.

One time I took a stroll and saw the twins running around on the beach at twilight. There sat a naked boy, on top of his clothes, his stomach rising up and down with every labored breath. They ran around him, touching him, laughing. The boy didn’t look happy. He was about their age, a fair-complexioned boy whom I had seen around before. The girls stumbled over him and knocked him down, squabbling over his flesh.

I was worried the boy might complain about this, but nothing happened. Everybody knew that you didn’t mess with the Liptz family. One day, Ali told me that he had checked, and the girls were probably Liptz’s illegitimate children. He said he believed that Liptz impregnated someone and then bought the babies with hard cash. He said that Liptz probably frequented prostitutes. By then, their behavior had made him very bitter. I scolded him, then apologized. I explained that I didn’t want to hear any bad things about them. That night, a surprising thought occurred to me: I was in love with one of them, or with them both.

Ali asked if I was also not interested in hearing any true things about them. I said I was particularly not interested in true things, because truth can be embarrassing to all involved. Ali pressed on and asked if I also didn’t want to hear that we were sitting on top of the ruins of an Arab village called Az-Zeeb. I told him this wasn’t true, because we were inside a new building, and the village was actually located a few hundred meters to the north of us. Ali said, ‘Okay, okay.’ He didn’t have a comeback to my simple argument.

One night I couldn’t sleep. The moon was emaciated and flesh-like. I noticed something was happening at the beach, and so I stayed away. But I saw Ali with his hands tied up. The girls ran around and played, dragging him from side to side. At some point, Ali lay on the sand and the waves grazed him. Tal threatened to check whether he could float and laughed. Ali laughed too, or pretended to laugh. It was difficult to see anything from where I stood, even though the moon glared so brightly.

I went to bed and never saw Ali again. We didn’t talk about him. Maybe he quit out of sheer embarrassment. The garbage started to pile up. A light bulb went out in Coral’s study and she got angry. Someone called to say that they were interviewing people to replace Ali, and that they didn’t want an Arab this time. I told Muli I could take care of day-to-day maintenance and cleaning. He thought for a second and said that the fewer people there the better, and that he would recommend me to take on Ali’s job for a few extra shekels.

‘They like you, on the whole,’ Muli said.

‘We’ve never even spoken yet,’ I thought to say, but I was silent.

 

I moved into Ali’s room, which was smaller than my previous room but not as austere. The next morning, I found that the room was a stomping ground for slugs that crawled, with a certain nobility, on the walls, furniture and floor. At first, I picked them up and placed them on the trees outside. After a few days, I started collecting them in a bowl with some soil moistened with mineral water. When I had ten slugs, I moved them into a terrarium that I had bought. I would watch them crawl around and get stuck to the glass. The terrarium was my one large expense. I smuggled it in at the dead of night, because I was embarrassed to get caught playing with these creatures, which don’t have such a great reputation.

A week later, I was awakened by the shouting and swearing of a fisherman arguing with the guard positioned at the beach. The fisherman was wearing a cross on a necklace. He said he was standing on a rock by the sea, about to fish, when he was suddenly wounded in his thigh. He didn’t understand what happened, but then he saw the girls were shooting at vacationers with a BB gun. They shot at a few other people, but had apparently only hit him. He gestured at his wound over and over again and said angrily that he was a veteran of the South Lebanon Army, the Christian militia that had collaborated with Israel in Lebanon, and that after the withdrawal he moved to Nahariya. The SLA fisherman accused the girls of terrorism and arrogantly threatened to slaughter them.

I didn’t know what to do. I gave him Muli’s phone number. The fisherman talked with him, but wouldn’t calm down. He didn’t know who Liptz was and didn’t want any money. He just wanted the girls to be punished. A few minutes later, three cops from the Nahariya police station came and handcuffed him. I found the girls’ BB gun and surreptitiously broke it. I buried the broken parts in a field of nettles.

One morning I woke up with Tal standing at the side of my bed. She was wearing yellow shorts and our knees were touching each other. She looked at me sadly and started chewing on her shirt collar, her body arched over me. I did not respond, so she bit my lower lip and walked away indifferently.

 

The girls had strange lovers, or at least strange friends: a shuttle driver who sang like Elvis, a tap-dance instructor, a sixty-year-old homeless man, a hot hairdresser who seemed gay, a prostitute from Nahariya whose upper lip was smeared with deep purple lipstick. Apparently she forgot to apply it to the bottom lip, or she just ran out of lipstick. Sometimes they invited boys they chatted with online to come party with them, and the night would be all thunder and storms, though it was unclear whether they actually had sex. I ignored the lovers, even though I was slightly jealous. I would clear the weeds or load up the wheelbarrow with garbage from the waste bins when they left in the morning. The guests completely ignored me. Sometimes the boys would depart with an offhand ‘good morning,’ the kind you say to servants, combining ‘good’ and ‘morning’ into one word squeezed into a snort, spitting out the letters all at once for efficiency’s sake.

 

One morning, the news said a terrible sand storm was approaching the country from the Sinai Peninsula. There were already a few casualties in Egypt. To my mind, it was one of the things that was bound to happen occasionally in Israel, a country adjacent to a desert, but the media was furious, as if it was some evil plot.

The media pressure bore results. A few cabinet ministers placed defeating the storm at the top of their agenda. The morning shows reported that jumbo jets would fly by the Egyptian border and spray water at the storm to weaken it, though a specialist said this was utterly useless, a waste of money and water. Citizens were instructed to seal their houses with nylon sheets, wrap up sensitive appliances and take special care of babies.

I wrapped the girls’ quarters with nylon while they were suntanning. They resided in a few huge rooms equipped with massive windows to let in the sun, and it wasn’t easy to seal everything by myself. I stood there holding a measuring tape for a long time, calculating the size of the window. Finally, I cut the nylon and pasted it. I did it gently, so that the glue wouldn’t rip the paint off the wall.

The girls got angry because I was disturbing them.

When the room was wrapped and sealed, I turned to leave. Tal ripped off the nylon sheets and wore them like a prayer shawl. Coral did approximately the same and turned into a kind of nylon and tape mummy. Tal was tipsy, you could smell the beer fumes wafting from her mouth, like little kittens of alcohol. She approached as if to kiss me, and then burped. This made Coral laugh. I didn’t reprimand them for ruining my work, and went on to prepare Ali’s room for the storm, planning to turn in early.

I shut the door and plugged the keyhole with toilet paper, per the recommendations. I turned on the radio to listen to the special storm broadcast.

Out of nowhere, I got a call from my cousin Alex. I never liked talking to Alex the wise-ass, who had one eyebrow eternally arched. Alex was a man of principle. He always wore a bored and displeased expression. At the end of every conversation, it felt like he wanted to say one last thing, but he never did. That kind of asymmetry and dissatisfaction on a man’s face can actually ruin him, and perhaps even doom him to a life of utter decency.

He had studied journalism, but couldn’t find a job in the industry because of the recession, so he taught communication studies at a high school. After they cut the communications course, he was forced to teach PE. Alex told me he needed a place to hide from the storm, because he was stuck in Nahariya and all the hotels were full. I asked Alex how he even knew where I was, and he said my mother was bragging about it.

I had signed a non-disclosure agreement, and when I told my mother about the job, I made her swear that she wouldn’t tell anyone. But now wasn’t the time to deal with that. My mom couldn’t bear the thought that I was professionally successful while she couldn’t brag about it.

Alex apologized again, but said he didn’t have a choice, he had to come before the sandstorm began. I said, ‘Sure, come on over.’

I couldn’t tell him no. Six years earlier, my ex-girlfriend and I had stayed at his place in New York in order to save money on a hotel. Every morning, Alex would wear a fluorescent plastic apron, unrivalled in its ugliness, and make us a huge, assorted, tasteless breakfast. Fully committed to showing us a good time, he took us to all the places recommended in the guidebook, but remained slightly bitter, all while making wisecracks that blackened the mood instead of lightening it.

According to my contract, I was not allowed to host him, but I knew that no one would know about it if I did. I would never hear the end of it from my family if I abandoned him to the storm. He was the talkative type and would definitely tell everyone if I did.

 

Alex came in with a kind of lopsided smile. I didn’t like him. As a boy, when I was about sixteen, I fell in love with him and had strange dreams in which he appeared. At that age, you tend to fall in love with strongly opinionated people. But even then it was hard to like him.

I politely inquired about what was new. He told me he had undergone a major change in his life. He decided to quit teaching and got a degree in hospital clowning instead. He was working, in low gear, under the stage name of Jokey Carter.

At first he talked about clowning pretty enthusiastically, but quickly his spirits sank and he turned bitter. He said the clients were unbearable, that sick people, especially those who are about to die, think they deserve everything.

‘The storm should be starting any minute,’ Alex said. He went to brush his teeth.

Suddenly the wind turned shrill: a series of fox- and tiger-like wails. From a distance, the spinning dust sank and the yard was swarmed with birds of multiple species and colors. Even behind the sealed windows we could hear the squawking of desert birds, forest birds, city birds and sea birds, seagulls and terrifying hoopoe crests, coots and modest sparrows, beaks and wings, which covered the gardens and yards in a blanket of chirps and wing claps.

Alex wasn’t interested in birds and haughtily took out a thin and worn-out paperback by Amos Oz. I took out a self-help book called Think and Grow Rich. The back cover claimed that the book was translated into thirty languages and had sold more than one-hundred million copies.

Outside the window everything looked normal. The wind and dust had settled. Traffic began to flow on the road in its usual dullness. Alex was about to go back to his car when suddenly the wind rose and sounded a terrible croak. Barrages of vigorous sand hurled against the door, as if a firing squad had decided to execute it. In the blink of an eye the air outside the window turned a solid white. It was impossible to see anything out the window except a murky white screen, and the awful noise was the only hint that anything not white was happening out there.

My room was quite old. A crack nestled between the wall and the roof, and through it sand blew into the room. Alex, who was taller than me, stood on the kitchen counter and pushed rolled-up nylon sheets into the hole to seal it. I held his heels in place to help stabilize him, because the counter looked kind of loose.

We didn’t notice it at first, but suddenly Tal and Coral were in the room, their faces coated with dust. They didn’t say anything, and went to the sink to wash their faces and hands. Both were swaddled in workout clothes from head to toe, looking filthy and sweet. They stood with their backs to us. The faucet hawked and coughed and then the water burst out, rushing toward their extended hands in an inconsistent stream typical of ancient plumbing systems.

I motioned to Alex to get out of the bed. The sisters slid into our beds, as if our beds were theirs from time immemorial. Alex resealed the door because they had ripped part of the covering when they entered. Luckily, Ali’s duvet was on the floor, and we could lie on it in relative comfort.

I’m not terribly particular, but I do need a pillow to fall asleep, and to my relief the girls threw the pillows down from the bed and lay on the mattress without them. Neither of them seemed to mind that there was a stranger among us, but instead saw it as an opportunity to pick on someone new. They started jumping up and down on the bed, holding each other’s hands and shouting, ‘Nazi bastards’.

They had a tendency of showering their surroundings with pejoratives like ‘Gestapo’ or ‘capo’, the result of Goldtuch the Holocaust survivor’s history lessons. I had learned not to mind their cussing and their nagging, but I felt bad because of Alex.

Coral said, ‘I’m sleeping, don’t bother me,’ and fell asleep on my bed, looking angelic. I made up my mind that she was prettier than Tal, even though they were almost completely identical. Tal got up and mischievously opened the zipper of Alex’s backpack, despite his gentle protestations. It held his hospital clowning props – a red nose, top hat and curly wig. Tal put Alex’s plastic nose on, but Coral fought her, snatched it away and put it on her own nose.

Alex curtly demanded that they leave his bag alone. He plucked the red nose off of Coral’s nose and tossed it back in the bag.

Alex’s killjoy attitude bored the girls. If there was anything they really hated, it was being treated dispassionately.

The girls had a laptop. Coral had brought it into the room under her shirt to keep it safe from the dust, and they turned it on and started watching porn they had downloaded earlier. It showed a woman of around thirty, or maybe slightly older, asking a man to suck milk from her breasts. The woman seemed completely normal. Her breasts were normal and her face was weary, but the man looked like a successful porn star of perhaps rural German descent. The girls positioned the laptop so that we could both see what they were watching.

Tal put her hand into Coral’s underwear and Coral put her hand into Tal’s. They touched each other but barely moaned. Their eyes were fixed on the movie. Then they started kissing passionately. I dove into Think and Grow Rich as if nothing was happening and handed Alex his own book. He didn’t open it. He looked shocked.

The only thing you could see out the window was the tip of a lively branch fighting the storm, about half a meter from the windowpane. The world behind it was covered with a haze of dust. Alex whispered to me that he would stop them, that they were kids and shouldn’t be watching this sort of stuff. That it was incest. I begged him to shut up.

He said, ‘How can you let them go on? You’re their educator. They’re walking all over you.’

‘Everything’s okay,’ I said.

They must have had enough because Tal got up, fixed her clothes and said, ‘I’m bored.’

I was silent. Alex looked at them and said, ‘So be bored.’

 

She said, ‘You’re not funny. I’m soo bored,’ and then she started shouting, ‘I’m soo bored, bored as soooap! You idiot.’

Tal walked around the room with Amos Oz’s book balanced on the top of her head. She walked with her nose in the air. Alex made a lunge for the book but Tal got away and lost her balance. The book dropped on the terrarium that I had tried to hide, and the terrarium lid slipped open.

Just before Alex had arrived, I had put the terrarium with the slugs out of sight and pulled a towel over it, because I didn’t want Alex to see it. Now my secret was revealed. I was embarrassed.

‘Coral, come see. Slugs!’ Tal said excitedly.

‘Move over moron, let me play with them,’ Coral said.

They grabbed a dull pencil and started touching the slugs with it. I was pleased, if only because they didn’t mock me for my collection. Quite the opposite, they seemed fascinated by the slugs. The storm grew stronger, and sand blasted the door and walls. The tape by the door disintegrated, and dusty air whistled inside. I fixed the masking tape where gusts of wind had peeled it off.

The girls stood with their backs to me, playing with the slugs.

‘Arnon, they’re putting wine on them,’ Alex said.

‘What?’

‘They’re putting wine on your slugs.’

‘No, they’re not.’

‘See for yourself. It’s animal abuse.’

‘Slugs are not exactly animals.’

‘They’re naked snails, they’re not plants.’

‘But they’re not mammals. Slugs are closer to insects than to mammals.’

‘It’s like rubbing salt in a baby’s wounds.’

‘I can’t see what they’re doing from here,’ I said. ‘I know them, they’re not bad on the inside.’ And really, from where I was standing I could only see Tal and Coral’s backs.

‘What’s your problem, come over here,’ Alex gestured at the floor beside him.

‘I don’t know what is happening, and even if something is happening, it’s no big deal. There are a lot of slugs. More come all the time.’

When the girls moved aside for a second, I saw the slugs squirming.

‘Girls, what are you doing with the slugs?’ I asked.

‘Nothing special, Uncle Arnon,’ Tal said.

‘We played with them a little,’ Coral said.

‘They had a difficult childhood,’ I told Alex.

‘Our childhood wasn’t easy, it’s true,’ they agreed with me. ‘And neither was Daddy’s.’

‘They wouldn’t hurt a fly.’

‘Wrong,’ Alex said. ‘They’re not telling the truth. They need discipline.’

‘You split everything into black and white,’ I said. ‘I’ve known them for several months. It’s complicated.’

Alex repeated, ‘It’s animal abuse.’

‘You can’t be sure of that,’ I said. ‘You’re oversimplifying things.’

‘We didn’t do anything,’ they said. ‘No other girls would have been better than us under the same circumstances. You know, everybody hates us and complains about us in Nahariya.’

‘It doesn’t matter, you can’t do this,’ Alex cried and stood up. ‘Leave the poor slugs alone!’

‘If your friend keeps being annoying, we’ll kill the slugs for real,’ they warned. They looked at me. I was silent. It seemed that Alex’s criticism had put them on edge. I kept quiet.

‘What are you going to do to us, mister? It’s our house, mister,’ Tal said.

‘We could call the police and tell them you’re a burglar,’ Coral said.

‘And a rapist,’ Tal added.

‘He’s a rapist and a thief, right, Arnon?’ Coral said. She tore off part of her pants so it looked like she had been struggling with a man. ‘No, don’t touch me! It hurts! Stop it! Stop it!’ she said. Alex eyed them sourly.

‘Arnon is Daddy and Muli’s man, so he has to love us. He’ll say whatever we want him to, right?’ Tal said.

‘He has to,’ Coral said. ‘I love Arnon. He watches over us.’

‘Yeah. Arnon always takes care of us.’

 

They took off their T-shirts at the same time. There was a V-shaped line of dust on their necks. They didn’t wear bras because their breasts were very small. The pale chests of the girls were similar to a young man’s. Tal’s body was fair. Coral was tanner and had a bikini tan line.

They approached us. Tal unbuttoned my shirt. I wanted to stop them because they were young girls, but I couldn’t do a thing. I was paralyzed. Alex managed to stop Coral. Then they went back to the bed without touching us. They thought it was the funniest thing in the world. They went to their mattress, covered themselves with my duvet, actually Ali’s duvet, and grinned.

They took off their leggings and folded them neatly, their faces solemn. They sat on the duvet, clad only in underwear, and continued watching the porn with interest. Then they both took off their underwear at the same time. I was surprised to see that they had underdeveloped male genitalia, like a small boy’s.

They lay on the bed. Tal was on the bottom, Coral on top of her. Their breasts rested against each other’s navels. Each held the other’s genitals in her hands. They spat into their palms and stroked each other’s tiny penises, their faces as serious as a politician’s. Then each sucked the other’s penis in her mouth. Tal came. Her semen spilled onto Coral’s lips. Using her hands, Coral tried to make some more semen spray out, but there wasn’t much left. She wiped her mouth with my sheet and then stared at the globe Ali had left behind, spinning it around with harsh blows until it spun off the table.

Coral was dead bored because Tal had already fallen asleep. She, still awake, felt bummed out and lame compared to her sister. She walked up to Alex and pulled her penis up near his mouth. He didn’t do anything, just turned his face away angrily. She touched herself until she was apparently satisfied. I preferred not to get involved. I fell asleep. It wasn’t clear how much time had passed. The storm raged on but was weakening. I was roused by Alex shouting, ‘You’re not doing this.’

He claimed that the girls had peed on the slugs. I was lying on the carpet and again saw nothing.

I heard a blow. The girls, a bottle of wine in their hands, were near the slugs. Alex tried to physically restrain them, and Tal gave him a loud smack.

‘What was that? You bitches, you can’t do whatever you want just because you’re some millionaire’s spoiled brats!’ Alex said.

‘Why are you talking like that?’ I said. ‘That’s a rotten thing to say.’

‘I’ll tell you what’s rotten,’ he said, taking Coral’s hand and slapping it. I knew this was going to lead to something awful. Coral had never encountered such treatment, though she might have been expecting it her entire life.

‘Don’t touch me, don’t touch me. Let go of my hand, you asshole,’ she said. Her face was yellow, the color of her pants. Tal turned yellow too.

Alex tightened his grip on Coral’s hand. All of a sudden, the lights went off. An electric pole had probably fallen down somewhere. The storm subsided a little, though it was still impossible to go out. Every so often, the storm would suddenly intensify.

‘Let go of my sister,’ Tal said.

‘I’ll tell you what I think. You can’t do everything you want. Someone has to set you some boundaries. Clear-cut limits.’

‘He said he wants to cut us,’ Tal said. ‘Your friend is a psychopath.’

‘I didn’t say that,’ Alex said.

‘For a start, let go of her hand Alex,’ I said. ‘I’ll handle this, give me a break.’

‘I won’t let go until she apologizes for slapping me.’

‘It wasn’t me, it was my sister. You’re mixing us up sweetheart. You’re just hateful and envious of Daddy. When we walk down the street, they all look at us with beady eyes. Everyone is jealous of us. Even when they’re nice, they always want something. Daddy made everything he has with hard work and talent. We’ve always helped the country, we help the economy and give out millions in donations. We got nothing for free.’

‘I have nothing against your family, I really don’t,’ Alex said.

‘Why are you shouting at us then, instead of going to butcher shops and shouting at the butchers? They treat animals worse than this. You’re a hypocrite.’

‘Yeah, a hypocrite,’ Tal said.

‘That has nothing to do with it. You slapped me and it’s unacceptable,’ Alex said.

‘It wasn’t me, it was my sister, leave me alone.’

‘Yeah, it was me,’ Tal said from a distance. ‘It was because you said you’d cut us, you lunatic.’

‘I will let go of your hand if you apologize on her behalf.’

She started crying. ‘Sorry, I apologize.’

‘Let her go. You’ll get me in trouble,’ I told him. ‘This is my place of work.’

‘What are you sorry for?’ Alex squeezed harder.

‘That my sister slapped you.’

‘And what else? Say you’re sorry about the anise drink you poured over the slugs.’

‘It wasn’t anise, it was wine.’

‘Say you’re sorry for that.’

‘Sorry for the wine. It was nasty of us.’

‘And you also need to understand that porn is exploitative of women. Say you’re sorry for that too.’

Coral cried, ‘Sorry, Uncle Alex. I get it now and I’m sorry.’

‘She’s crying, she feels bad, leave her alone,’ Tal said. ‘I’m sorry too.’ She burst into tears. ‘We shouldn’t have done it. Do you forgive us?’

‘We shouldn’t have done it,’ cried Coral. ‘I don’t understand how we did it. Do you forgive us, Uncle Alex?’

‘Of course,’ Alex smiled and let go of Coral. I realized that I was crying a little too. ‘You’re sweet girls. But someone had to make you learn your lesson,’ he said.

‘Everybody always hates us because we’re rich, even if we’re nice,’ Coral said.

‘Now I’m sad because of what we’ve done,’ Tal said.

‘Yeah,’ Coral confirmed. ‘Super sad.’

‘It’s alright,’ Alex said.

‘Let’s all hug,’ offered Tal, a tinge of excitement in her voice.

The lights came back on. Electric light coated everyone and everything, the slug cadavers and the terrarium and Amos Oz’s book and Think and Grow Rich and the blankets and stools and Tal and Coral. Tal hugged me. Coral hugged Alex.

Then we switched. Tal hugged Alex and Coral hugged me. It was a long embrace, like in an old American movie, colorized because it was originally filmed in black and white.

‘Let’s turn off the lights,’ Tal said.

‘Yeah, turn off the lights,’ Coral said.

‘We’re turning off the lights,’ Tal said excitedly.

 

Darkness descended. A tremendous wind blew outside, rattling the windows. In one fell swoop, the dust armies deployed all their brigades and the skies turned bright and pure, the moon shone an arrogant gold, as if there was something cool as shit on the ground to illuminate. Everything looked like a battlefield in an innovative and awful war. The clean yard had turned all at once into a graveyard for plastic bags, as if someone had stolen the bags and hung them on the trees and the bushes and the weeds and the do-it-yourself shed and the stones and the fences and the fallen leaves and the dead bungalows. And everything in nylon. Then the storm burst again and the nylons leaped off the trees and flew up in the sky like birds.

I went to the window. From behind me, I head the whirr of an electrical appliance. Alex was crying out. The girls laughed, trying to drown out his voice. The whirring stopped. At first I thought Alex was laughing, but it was a shout.

‘They cut off my foot!’

‘Alex is bad,’ Tal said. ‘You don’t slap in our family. We suffered enough in Russia!’

‘Save me, Arnon,’ Alex cried out. ‘It hurts like hell. I can’t believe this! Why did you cut off my foot?’

‘We didn’t do anything,’ the girls said.

‘How did they cut off your foot?’ I asked suspiciously.

‘They turned on the chainsaw. Didn’t you hear? Call an ambulance. Go, go run out and call an ambulance and the ponies.’

‘The ponies?’

‘The police I said. Those bitches cut off my foot.’

‘Then why did you say ponies?’

‘My leg has been sawn off, you idiot, what does it matter if I said ponies or police. It’s a slip of the tongue. I have no foot!’

‘They can’t operate the chainsaw,’ I said.

The girls’ minds were already elsewhere. ‘I’ll get a tattoo on my honeymoon,’ Coral said.

‘Of your husband’s name?’ Tal sneered. ‘Yuck.’

Alex cried out. Both of them looked at him disinterestedly for a moment and kept talking.

‘You shouldn’t,’ Tal continued. ‘You can’t know these days how long a marriage will last. I’m all for weddings, but you have to know that there’s statistical data on these things. You can’t go into it blind. I want to get dreadlocks on my honeymoon.’

Alex moaned in pain.

Tal said, ‘There are procedures to remove tattoos.’

‘I’m of the opinion that a law should be enacted to prohibit tattoo removal,’ Coral said. ‘It ruins the romance of the tattoo.’

They moved closer to me and Tal wrapped Coral’s hair around into a sort of a dreadlock, but her hair was too fine. She found green drinking straws and stuck strands of hair through them to hold it together. She was very skillful and it was a delight to witness the delicate but deliberate movements of her hands. She had the hands of a three-year-old, much smaller than Coral’s. Maybe it was genetic. Alex was on the other side of the room, in the dark, and he kept crying and whining that his foot was chopped off. I was mesmerized by the girls’ conversation.

‘Arnon, do something,’ Alex moaned. ‘Turn on the light.’

‘No way, it’ll hurt our eyes,’ Tal said.

‘I have to turn on the light for one second,’ I announced. ‘Just to see what my cousin wants.’

‘It’s our house, isn’t it?’ the girls said. ‘And we don’t feel like having the light in our eyes. Daddy’s paying the electric bill.’

‘Listen Alex, it’s their house. They don’t want to, they said no,’ I said.

‘Go to hell,’ Alex said.

‘Come on, you have to admit that the girls are talented,’ I said.

‘Arnon, save me. I’m losing blood. Why did you bring me here?’

He got quiet.

‘How much do you believe in God?’ Tal asked.

‘I believe that we are all God,’ Coral answered. ‘Aaall of us.’

Alex started moaning again. ‘You should know that what you did is really, really not okay,’ he grunted.

‘I’m sorry,’ one of them said. ‘But it wasn’t me, it was my sister.’

‘It was you.’

‘He just likes blaming you,’ Coral said. ‘Right from the start he had it in for you for some reason.’

‘People,’ Tal said in distaste. ‘That’s what they’re like. Bloodsuckers. This is why Grandpa came here from Russia without a penny in his pocket.’

‘I’m not Russia. What did you cut my foot off for?’

‘Your name’s Alex,’ Coral said. ‘We may be kids, but you can’t fool us.’

‘Arnon and I are Iraqis.’

‘Don’t be a dick. Come on, you know what we mean.’

‘If anything, you might be Russians.’

‘Whoa, he’s saying we’re Russians Arnon,’ Tal said.

‘Arnon?’ he turned to me. ‘Why aren’t you saying anything? Do something.’

‘They apologized before. Let’s try and end this amicably. There’s goodwill here. They’re also letting you say whatever you want, they’re not bad. Both sides are to blame, you and them.’

‘I’m going to call the police and the ambulance. Now,’ Alex hobbled towards the phone, but the girls turned the chainsaw on and sliced the line, and the receiver in his hand wasn’t connected to anything. He was now near the window. Under the moonlight, I could see that he really was missing a foot. There was a bleeding stump at the end of his jeans and it was dripping on the carpet.

He saw me looking. ‘There, now you believe me?’ he said. ‘No foot.’

‘Girls, how did this happen? Now I’m serious,’ I asked. ‘He’s really missing a foot.’

‘That’s disgusting,’ Tal said. ‘We didn’t do anything. And he shouldn’t make a mess on our floor.’

‘Who else could have cut off my foot?’ Alex cried. ‘Only these bitches would.’

‘There’s no need for such language,’ I said. ‘Let’s stay civil. They said they didn’t do it.’

‘Who could have cut off my foot? Who? Me?’

‘Of course you,’ the girls said. ‘You know we’re rich and you’re in it for the damages. But we’ll screw you in court, blackmailer.’

‘Alex isn’t like that,’ I said, and turned to Alex. ‘You shouldn’t have come here.’

‘You’re telling me off? Me? I had my foot cut off. Go call a doctor. I’m losing blood. It’s a matter of life and death.’

I stood up and got ready to go out.

The girls said, ‘Don’t leave us alone with this man, he’s sick and soaked in blood and he wants to kill us. You can’t abandon us with such a psycho. It’s your job to protect us.’

‘Run Arnon, they’re crazy, they’re fucking whores who want to kill me and then they’ll kill you,’ Alex demanded.

‘You see? He’s swearing at us,’ Coral said.

‘He said I’m a stinking whore,’ Tal said. ‘Listen to me, mister: I use a two-hundred-and-forty euro perfume. It’s a limited edition.’

‘If you leave, you won’t have a job,’ Coral warned, looking at me. ‘Daddy would be really mad.’

‘Arnon . . . please,’ Alex moaned.

‘Our daddy’s name is Eli,’ Tal said proudly. ‘He’s the most powerful man in the country.’

‘He’s in the newspapers and on the TV and the internet,’ Coral said. ‘He’s friends with all the important people in the world.’

‘I’m losing blood.’

‘Don’t worry Alex, we’ll get it sorted after the storm,’ I said.

‘Call for help. It’s the law. You have to help me.’

‘The law hates Daddy. Everyone’s jealous.’

They took the chainsaw and Alex tried to kick it away, but Coral grabbed his flailing leg. I was too stunned to stop them. Coral severed the leg, and then a hand. He only had one hand left.

The body parts were strewn on the floor. It smelled terrible. Coral motioned at me to chop off the remaining hand. I took the chainsaw away from them angrily and set it aside. ‘Well,’ they said. ‘It’s better if you do it. You have a good steady grip. It’ll hurt him less.’

I found myself cutting off Alex’s last limb. Really, there was almost no blood this time. I turned off the chainsaw and sat back in my chair. Alex was unconscious. The whole wall was drenched in blood, as was the mattress Alex was sitting on. I thought about calling Muli, but the line was cut.

Alex grunted somehow, ‘Guys, this is not okay.’ I was sure that he was already dead or out cold from blood loss.

‘Shut up,’ they said.

‘I won’t shut up. Someone has to tell you that this is not okay.’

‘He has a nice voice,’ Tal said.

‘You know what, he really does have a nice voice,’ Coral said. ‘You should be on the radio. What do you do?’

‘Hoss . . . pital . . . c . . . lowning . . .’ he moaned, limbless. ‘It hurts sooo . . . muuch . . .’

‘I love your voice,’ Tal said, and started going down on him. He didn’t get hard. Her hair got matted with blood, which annoyed her. She was also disappointed by her failure. She took the chainsaw and sliced the flaccid member clean off. Alex shouted in pain, and fainted. I ran to the bathroom and got some toilet paper. I’d had enough of this whole red business. I thought that he should die already, for all our sakes. The whole thing was taking way too long. This brought us all down and we had to think of something new. The girls took the red nose from the bag and placed it over Alex’s nose. ‘He’s a clown. Come on clown, make us laugh,’ Coral said, and raised the chainsaw up to scare him. ‘No one likes an unfunny clown.’

I went to the power socket and pulled out the plug, so they couldn’t turn the chainsaw on again.

‘Let’s all try to relax,’ I said.

‘Step aside,’ Tal ordered. ‘It’s going to be fine. We always win, and we’re always cute.’

‘After all, we’re always cute and we always win,’ Coral repeated.

They really were winners. And cute. Alex was neither a winner nor cute. I had to step aside.

He woke up again. ‘Not o . . . kay. I won’t stop saying: This is not okay . . . You have to be disciplined. Stop this. Arr . . . Arnon . . .’

Tal took the box knife that I used to fix up the nylons earlier. She opened it and decapitated Alex. I couldn’t bear to watch, but after a few minutes I heard someone whistling a nursery rhyme. I turned to look and saw his head rolling around, its eyes open. That was it. Everything was covered in a blood that had already started to turn black. I had also gotten dirty, but Alex’s death had become part of the background. Something that there was no point in resisting anymore – just scenery.

I went to the sink and washed my foot. The room was in a terrible state. Outside a horrific wind was blowing. I was waiting for the morning to extend its toes.

I went to sleep on the chair, because where we had slept before was dirty. When I heard the voice, I was sure I was hallucinating. ‘Not okay. This is not okay.’

The girls turned on the light again, angry. There was really no reason for Alex to behave like this anymore.

‘You’re not okay either, Arnon,’ Alex said. ‘If your parents could see you now, if your mother . . .’

Tal picked up the chainsaw, turned it on, and sliced the head along the mouth, but the upper and lower lips started crawling toward one another, just like the slugs in the terrarium, and the lips reconnected, and again he said, ‘This . . . isn’t . . . okay.’ The words were only a whisper, but there was no denying that they bothered us.

‘You need disci . . . discipline. There’s a problem of discipline here,’ Alex continued.

‘It’s scary that he keeps talking,’ Tal said. ‘We’re little girls after all. Even if we’ve had loads of sexual experience. He’s a really scary man. You heard him yourself, he said he’d cut us. You heard it, right?’

A terrible rain started pouring down, rinsing the dust out of the air. I managed to fall asleep on the chair, but they pulled me into the bed and I slept between them. We cuddled in each other’s arms. Because of the terrible, noisy night, we ended up sleeping soundly, and went on sleeping well into daytime, perhaps the best sleep I’d had since I moved up north. It had been a long time since I had fallen asleep in someone’s arms. Their skin was soft and smooth.

When I woke up, I called Muli and started telling him what happened. He said we shouldn’t discuss it over the phone, and that he’d send a cleaner and would come in himself in a few hours. In the meantime, I turned on the stovetop, oiled the pan and made us all some omelets, with organic onions and sourdough crackers, which we ate outside in the yard.

 

‘Man of Principle’ was included in Arad’s collection The Israeli Dream (2010). This novelette was written after one of the wars of Israel in Gaza.

Top Reads 2018 | Poetry
Susan and Miffy