Aquarium

An excerpt from Yaara Shehori's new novel about the relationship between two deaf sisters.

Sisters Lili and Dori Ackerman are deaf. Their parents—beautiful, despondent Anna; fearsome and admired Alex—are deaf, too. Alex, a scrap-metal collector and sometime prophet, opposes any attempt to integrate with the hearing; to escape their destructive influence, the girls are educated at home. Deafness is no disability, their father says, but an alternative way of life, preferable by far to that of the strident, hypocritical hearing.

Living in a universe of their own creation, feared by and disdainful of the other children on their block, Lili and Dori grow up semi-feral. Lili writes down everything that happens—just the facts. And Dori, the reader, follows her older sister wherever she goes. United against a hostile and alien world, the girls and their parents watch the hearing like they would fish in an aquarium.

But when the hearing intrude and a devastating secret is revealed, the cracks that begin to form in the sisters’ world will have consequences that span the rest of their lives. Separated from the family that ingrained in them a sense of uniqueness and alienation, Lili and Dori must relearn how to live, and how to tell their own stories.

Lili and Dori. A light head next to a dark one. Curls and braids. Red mixed with brown. Four narrow eyes. The older has a girl’s name and her sister a name they give to boys. At home, they called them Big and Little, a stretched-out hand signaling the height of the taller one and then the height of her sister. Always one in relation to the other, even when they were apart. To the world, they weren’t yet Little and Big. They were the disabled girls. They had tanned legs, stung by mosquitoes in the summer. In the winter they wore shorts like boys’, without charm, without that blooming sweetness, with- out whatever shields the soft bones of children—not the flesh but rather that strange, pleasant innocence. That they never had. Mostly they wore oversized straw hats that seemed too adult for their age, the two of them like two black pits.

Hair fell in their eyes, but what was there for them to see—an oil stain on a shirt, a scrape on a knee? They spoke with words un- voiced, but they definitely spoke. They had many words. There was the language. An apple tree stood in the yard and all its fruit had worms. It grew there just as in a legend, and in opposition to all the rules of climate. They threw the apples. They tossed the leaves at one another as if they were two forest girls marrying each other under a green canopy. Lili was brave and Dori a coward, but they climbed the highest branches. They sat on a budding branch and shouted to the moon and the stars. It wasn’t pleasant to hear. Quite frightening, actually, like a couple of rabid foxes. The neighbors screamed until they gave up, because what was the point? Ackerman’s deaf girls couldn’t hear anyway. The neighbors learned and kept quiet. The girls hurled small, hard apples at the cats in the yard. Never hit one.

In truth, the tree belonged to the entire building, eight apartments, each one with lights on in the evening. But only Lili and Dori climbed it. Other than the screaming, the neighbors barely bothered them. Perhaps they left them alone out of pity. Perhaps out of despair. Perhaps they just gave up the sour apple harvest. Not a single child came near them, and they didn’t know that was odd.

From Lili and Dori’s perspective, the tree in the courtyard was the only thing that made their small apartment bearable. Low ceilings. Warped tiles. A room without a window; the drum rattle of the washing machine and the shaking of the sewing ma- chine that could be felt in the soles of the feet. How cramped they were there. Only on the apple tree were they okay: two daughters of the forest. Two imps. Deaf. Half retarded. Illiterate. Leave them alone.

When their father knocked on the trunk of the tree, they sensed the rising vibrations and hurried home. Sometimes they saw the light in the apartment rhythmically switch on and off, and that was enough. The lighthouse was illuminated. Each of them had worn a key since they were very small, tied to shoelaces around their necks. You need to be responsible, the whole world told them; you’re not sweet, and you can’t get comfortable with relying on someone else to worry about you. At the entrance to the apartment, each checked the other’s appearance. It was hopeless. Lili’s collar was torn in two places; Dori’s socks were falling off and her braid looked like a mouse’s tail. Lili was the big one. When they stood opposite the door, this became clear once again, whether or not they called her that at home. The big one slid a finger wet with spit over the small one’s eyebrows, forcefully cleaned a green-black stain above her cheek. It didn’t help. The two of them tried to smooth out their wrinkled skirts. Whoever heard of such a thing, climbing in skirts? But that is what they wore that day, over their pants, because the two uncles, their father’s brothers, were supposed to arrive for a visit. Their father treated the visit as a necessary evil (and before each visit Dori imagined those words written above the uncles’ heads), but the girls were required to look civilized. At least this time.

They certainly could have opened the door; they had keys, after all, but they waited. Finally their mother stood at the threshold with a blank expression on her face and they went in after her. Their father’s two brothers sat there. Their discomfort splashed in waves all the way to Dori, who saw four hands that couldn’t find a proper task. Uncle Noah interlaced his fingers and then released them. Ari’s hands lay dead on his knees. Noah loved to make small, ingenious devices, though this was in no way his line of business. Once he built a tiny bird for her that jumped out from its cage and spread its beak. She looked in amazement at the colorful feathers that had been glued one by one to its small body. Dori never knew when the bird was liable to leave the cage, even though she tried to guess. But his main hobby was children—he built dozens of tiny plaster children who slept in cigarette cases and matchboxes. For days after each of his visits, they found these boxes throughout the small apartment.

It can be assumed that it was only because of their uncles that Lili and Dori learned to read words, the words formed by their uncles’ fish lips. Dori was faster than Lili, true, but both of them could understand, if there was enough light and they could clearly see the mouths opening and closing, the tongue rising toward the palate and separating, the rows of teeth. How ugly it was! More than once they trembled in disgust and terror at the sight, with a kind of nausea that had pleasure mixed up in it, like sitting in a monster’s mouth without being swallowed. Noah and Ari, for their part, tried hard to absorb something of the language, they kept asking the girls to teach them, but the teaching never went anywhere. Alex asked them firmly, again and again, to let them be; they were girls, after all, not circus animals.

Sometimes it appeared to Dori that while her parents were beautiful and slender and ageless, the uncles themselves were immeasurably old. They were like fish that had been eaten and only their shiny fishbones were left on the plate. After one of these visits, which became more and more rare, they found two blue fish with wings stuck between the M and O volumes of The Complete Encyclopedia for Young Adults. The fish were precisely the size of their palms and made of thin metal. It was possible to scrape off the coating with a fingernail, but one try proved that it wasn’t worth the effort. The fishes’ wings shimmered as if they had been smeared with nail polish.

They were briefly alarmed by the thought that Noah knew the girls called them the fish uncles. “His toys are too sad,” Lili proclaimed as her open hand descended in front of her face, her expression conveying deep sadness, and then, in the blink of an eye, both hands, with fingers clenched, moved frenetically back and forth before her chest. Then she pointed to the uncle. But Dori knew that despite Lili’s conviction, her sister kept the boxes of sleeping children in the back of her bedside table; she even kept the fish (whereas Dori, despite her best efforts, lost hers). That was how they were then, like two open books in which almost the same thing was written.

If, despite everything, there was something special about Noah—fine hands, in any case—their father’s other brother, Ari, was small and withered. He had always been that way, straggling and slow, a mechanical engineer without a drop of spirit in him, as their father once told them. “The living fish and the dead fish,” Lili giggled when they were a bit bigger, and Dori joined in the giggling, mouth open wide like a dog learning to smile from its owner, without catching the joke. Still, they pitied him. But now, as he relaxed on the padded plaid armchair, she didn’t pity him at all.

The large notebook was placed on the table and the brothers took turns writing in it. The brothers had disposable pens, the kind that broke quickly, and their father had a heavy, cumbersome pen from which only he could manage to extract ink and letters. Each one added his words and at their end affixed  a period or a question mark. More question marks, in the cases of Noah and Ari. Their father inserted periods but never, ever exclamation marks. And after the periods, silence. If you looked on from the sidelines you would say, mistakenly, Three brothers are writing together, but in fact the notebook belonged to their father, Alex Ackerman, the oldest. The other two were just along for the ride. They had nothing of their father’s grand, terrible power. Dori tried to imagine them as children and still saw only a giant and two dwarfs, a fisherman and fishes. The two of them were born well after he was. They didn’t endure what he had endured, the two girls knew vaguely, without knowing the nature of the valleys he had traversed and the rivers he had crossed. Their father’s hands rested in the center of the note- book like a ship in a sea of paper. A moment later he was pressing the pen to the page and writing with quick movements. His brothers read upside down what he wrote. Dori and Lili knew that they were forbidden to interrupt. From the narrowed gaze their father sent them, they understood that their appearance alone was an outrage.

Dori identified a sign of amusement in Noah’s eyes, and  she knew that Lili saw it as well. But Ari was actually the one who addressed them by name, before their father dismissed his brother’s words with one decisive wave of his arm, and they went to their room, which they’d painted in shades of orange after the two of them agreed that nothing in the world was as beautiful as the sunset. Dori had already regretted this more than once. She would continue to regret it but would never paint the room another color.

Their mother waited for them there, sitting on Lili’s made bed, with the stretched-tight cover and the teddy bear Lili never hugged. The bear sat and stared at them with glass eyes. On Dori’s bed were six dolls, crayons, and a math book, an apple core and pencil shavings and God knew what else. This was all before Dori learned to behave like a human being, when her bed was the last unrestricted zone. So Dori sat down on her bed among the stuff and Lili remained standing and their mother didn’t move. They understood that she intended to reprimand them and then cry. This was how she always looked. Her nose was always red at its tip. Despite this, she was an attractive woman and had once been a real beauty. More beautiful than the two of them together—otherwise their father wouldn’t have married her. But instead of crying, she said to them in the language that she had a present for them. She was clumsy. Her hands were pretty but heavy and slow when asked to sign.

And she truly did give them a present. A blue coat for Lili and a red one for Dori. They almost never had money for new clothes. They were poor, but—no. Not exactly poor. It was simply that when there was money, they invested it in more important things, in long-term goals. Their mother had a sewing machine and good enough hands, and usually that was sufficient.

“What’s this all about?” Lili asked, surprised, but Dori didn’t want to see the answer. She was happy. Their mother smiled. From the front her smile was perfect, but Dori knew that in the back, on the left side, she was missing a lower tooth. A thousand years would have to pass before she’d get it repaired. This was the smile that Dori loved most in the whole world. Her mother suggested, almost without anger, that she shouldn’t wear the jacket when she was so dirty. She sadly left it in the silk wrapping pa- per on the bed. They went to wash their hands. Lili drank water from the toothbrush cup because she insisted that it tasted good to her, and Dori laughed so hard that water came out of her nose. Afterward they helped their mother bake oatmeal cookies. Two minutes of work, their mother announced to them happily. They served their father cookies because his brothers were already on their way out. Lili crossed the distance and put cookies in Noah’s pockets. One cookie, crumbling, she placed in Ari’s palm. Dori knew that their father saw, he saw everything, but he didn’t say a word. After Ari and Noah left, the four of them sat and nibbled on healthy cookies. “Two minutes it took,” their mother repeated joyfully, and for a moment her hands appeared to dance. This was one of the good days. One of the best.

That night they lay in bed and made shadows on the wall. They spoke like this many nights, in shadows, until they got caught. Dori asked Lili to tell her about the baby. Every time, Lili resisted a bit and then told her about the most beautiful baby ever born. “She was so small, we found her inside a sack of sugar,” Lili said, and Dori laughed. The previous time it was a sack of cotton. This was the story that Lili began telling her a while ago, after their mother recalled a memory from her childhood, that when she was a girl she thought that babies were born from cabbage. Which meant they were found in a cabbage patch, folded up among the leaves. The two of them understood, because they weren’t always slow-witted like people said, that apparently people grew cabbage wherever she came from. Dori imagined fields packed with heads of cabbage and two baby legs poking out from each head.

Lili laughed at their mother, but sometimes Dori believed her a bit. Sometimes she thought that she herself had really been born like those children Noah made, that they had found her too in a pack of cigarettes or in a medicine jar, but she, unlike all the others, had opened her eyes. Lili continued telling, the shadows she made with her quick fingers running along the wall. She signs even faster than Father, Dori thought. She looked at the shadows on the wall until her eyes hurt, but she didn’t plan to miss a thing. “You were the most beautiful baby anyone ever saw. You had eyes that were almost purple. A nose like a dot. I loved you so much and I believed you were mine. I argued about that with Mother like you wouldn’t believe. Who knew that you’d turn out to be such a witch?” The word “baby” was signed as   a rocking motion and a finger catching the lobe, as if to signify an earring, and the witch was signed as an imaginary crooked nose and after that a quick rub of the real nose. She knew that Lili didn’t mean what she signed, not really, but now her eyes were brown, not purple, and nothing remained in her of the sweet baby she had been nine years before, the baby that someone indeed had rocked, the baby that she had forgotten, but Lili remembered for her. Dori hugged the box that Noah had left her. Inside there was a boy with hair the color of sand. She fell asleep.

 

So they didn’t speak at your house? Anton asked.

Dori looked at him. He looked like a boy made of gold, his pretty head resting on his shoulders as if in another moment it would be removed. Of course they spoke, I already told you. Aren’t you listening?

He sat on the windowsill in his mother’s old house, which was painted white. She wasn’t really reprimanding him, but she could have.

We spoke in the language, do you understand? He didn’t understand, or pretended he didn’t. With your hands, you mean?

Dori rolled with laughter. Yes, idiot, with our hands. What’d you think, that we used Morse code?

 

Excerpted from Aquarium by Yaara Shehori. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2016 by Yaara Shehori. Translation copyright © 2021 by Todd Hasak-Lowy. All rights reserved.

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