Elisha didn’t know exactly when his right eye turned blue. On the family holiday, they were both still green, he was sure of it. The lake was clear (he remembered glancing at it) and Rivchu told him she was diving into his green eyes.
He suspected that it was the turtle. The moment he finished eating it, scraping the inside of its shell with a pocketknife and swallowing down one final viscous chunk, his right eye went blurry, and through it he saw sick people being shoved into sacks and thrown into the icy water. His left eye kept seeing the lake and the Carpathian Mountains and Rivchu’s warm lips. There was no point in trying to make sense of it, but he had a feeling that it started with the turtle. But there were no mirrors in Siberia, so he couldn’t really tell.
It could have also happened on the way from 16 Mila Street to the edge of the ghetto’s high wall, or on the way from the ghetto to the border, or when the Russians found him, or on any one of the days of hunger or in the days of eating blackberries. It could have also happened on the day of liberation, in one of the whirlpools the S.S. Nameless Immigrant got caught in, or maybe in the biggest whirlpool, when Shimon rested a heavy hand on him and said: I saw it with my own eyes Elisha, I’m sorry. Or when Elisha asked, And Rivchu? And Shimon said he heard that she too, Elisha, I’m sorry. Or on one of his first nights in red Haifa, perhaps at the moment when he met Leah’le in that diner, when he fixed two eyes on the chicken soup that poured from her ladle into his bowl. At that precise moment, he remembered the turtle clearly. With his right eye he saw the grayish-brown shell with the viscous chunks stuck to it, as his left eye filled with steam from the broth. And when Elisha saw the small kreplach floating in his bowl he didn’t think about the body bags floating slowly through the icy water and away from the island, he didn’t consider the polar bears that might have smelled them, or the large woods and the blackberries. Neither forest nor bears crossed his mind. He thought about the smell of the soup, raised both eyes and rubbed them, and before him he saw Leah’le, smiling her sad smile.
In the apartment Leah’le shared with her cousin Esther on Jaffa Street, Elisha saw himself in a mirror for the first time since the war started. He went to the bathroom to wash his hands, looked up, and saw an old man with sunken cheeks, yellow teeth, one blue eye, and one green. He recognized the green one, but the blue one gave him a start. He took a closer look and saw it was not exactly blue, but rather covered with a grayish-blue, opaque cloud.
Leah’le would make chicken soup with kreplach and sweet gefiltefish and apple pie with a grid of crust on top, and the best cremeschnitte in all of Ramat Gan and Givataim. She would dress well without overdoing it for her card game every Tuesday and beat everyone every week. That was Elisha’s least favorite thing about her—she was too smart. An uber chuchem, to be exact. Leah’le always made sure his underwear and socks were clean and folded on top of his trousers every evening, that his ironed shirt was hanging on the back of the chair, smelling fresh. Not of Rivchu’s rose or lavender scent, but of simple soap, the one that—after visiting each and every shop—was discovered to be both inexpensive and perfectly good.
There’s no point in trying to make sense of it, he once shouted, turning red, when she asked him why he had to slam the door in Miriam the neighbor’s face when Leah’le wasn’t home. Why couldn’t he just say, “Leah’le isn’t here, Miriam, good day,” or “How are you, Miriam? Leah’le isn’t home,” or “Leah’le isn’t here, I’ll tell her you stopped by.” What was the point, she asked, in slamming the door over and over again in the face of the neighbor from whom she sometimes borrowed a cup of milk and with whom she spent afternoons of tea and sighing? There’s no point in trying to make sense of it, Elisha said more softly, knowing that Leah’le wouldn’t accept an explanation about her wrinkled neck bringing to mind the head of a turtle pushing out of its shell.
But sometimes Elisha would forget about the turtle, the bears and the forest, the Carpathians and the lake, and even about Rivchu’s lips, and he would drown in Leah’le’s arms. He would allow her to soften him with the steam of her soup. He would grip her hand wordlessly and she would do the same. They would sit together on the brown couch, staring at the cabinet with the glass doors filled with china plates and cups, a few bottles of liquor, and two black-and-white photos in golden frames, standing at an angle on white doilies. They would match the pace of their breathing and neither cry nor smile, only listening to each other’s hearts beating.
One morning in mid-November, Leah’le stroked his hand from her hospital bed and said, “Maybe if you don’t slam the door in Miriam’s face for a few days she’ll make you some soup for Shabbat.” She also said, “You’ll do all right, Elisha, you’re eisenbeton.” And when Elisha rested his head on her hand, tears falling on her from his green eye, she added with a smile, “You’ve been through worse, you’ll do fine without me.” Then she closed her eyes. Elisha wanted to say sorry. Elisha wanted to say thank you. Elisha wanted to say: your soap and the clean scent, the folded socks, the apple pie with the crust grid, our home.
When Leah’le closed her eyes, Elisha recalled the war. Everyone said it would pass, and that they should wait quietly, laying low, until things went back to normal. That’s why they didn’t escape in time. When the patrol came to the wall everybody yelled, “Back to the tunnel! Hurry!” Elisha was the only one who lay down, face to the ground, arms spread out. He didn’t know why. Perhaps it was then that his eye turned blue. He kept lying like that with his eyes closed even when he heard someone calling “Elisha! Elisha!” Then he started imagining himself floating through the air, rivulets moving him in the shallow end of the lake, Rivchu rubbing his thighs, her hands moving up and up to his neck and his earlobes, and from there to his cheeks, gently opening his eyes, and then he saw he was in the air, before the marveling eyes of the patrol soldiers standing at the foot of the wall. Elisha swam through the air as far as he could, but just as he was hovering over a dark forest uncontrollably, he lowered down until his feet touched the ground, and he continued on foot, running. After that, he never managed to fly again, but to be honest, he never even tried. It was clear to him that some things should not be attempted twice.
In the middle of the sea, inside the biggest whirlpool, they all tied themselves to each other with ropes, and Shimon rested his heavy hand on him and said he’d heard that Rivchu, too, and at Haifa Port Elisha disembarked onto another land and the harsh light bathed him, and for a moment he had no idea how he got there. And when he put a ring on Leah’le’s finger and said, “Let my right hand forget her cunning,” he thought that maybe not everything that he believed had happened really happened. But that day, when they said goodbye at the hospital, he found himself wondering again if maybe it had. Because after Leah’le closed her eyes, her hand suddenly smelled of lavender, and Elisha looked up and was stunned to see the wrinkles on her face redrawing themselves, and on the bed before him, still and peaceful, eyes closed—was Rivchu, sixty years older.
Elisha bolted to the bathroom to wash his face, and by the time he returned the room was full of doctors and nurses, and his Leah’le, or his Rivchu, was covered with a white sheet. We’re sorry, they told him, and he flushed and cried that he wanted to see the face, see the face. Of course, the nurse said, lowering the sheet, and Elisha saw Leah’le, Leah’le again, and very, very gray.
If they had parted ways in the inferno, Leah’le would have swallowed her pride and gone looking for him, Elisha thought. With the same thoroughness with which she went from one grocery shop to the next, picking out only the inexpensive products; with the same practicality with which she listed every routine and unusual expense in her notepad. She probably would have placed an ad with the Search Bureau for Missing Relatives, asked every neighbor if they knew someone who knew someone who might know something. A statement made by some Shimon guy in the middle of the sea wouldn’t have petrified her, and neither would a recurring nightmare or a toxic thought such as: death is preferable to oblivion, to disappointment, to missed opportunities. She wouldn’t have clenched her lips and her fists and muttered “à la guerre comme à la guerre,” and hurt, and fumed, and longed, and burned on the inside while doing nothing. She wouldn’t have thought other thoughts, either, such as the ones that pricked like cold water dripping from the roof of a dark tunnel. For instance, that the rumor was true. Or: I’m too late. Or: I let her down and she chose another. Leah’le would have been sensible. At least I’ll know I did everything I could, she would probably say. Life is stronger than anything, she would sigh. She would plan her moves and win, just like every card game on Tuesdays at the senior citizens’ club.
Then, more confused and decisive than ever, Elisha walked out of the hospital and stormed through every senior citizen club in town to find out which memorial services were going to be held soon, for which cities and which communities. He planned to search through a different city every day, but flushed when he managed so quickly, at the second club he visited, to acquire the place and time of the memorial service for the Jews of the city of Peilova. All those years, he fumed, every twenty-fourth of November, I missed the opportunity to find out for myself, to see with my own eyes, the green one and the blue one. Then he went back to the hospital to take care of funeral arrangements and waited restlessly for seven days to pass, then three more.
Every morning after Leah’le’s death, Elisha awoke with a pounding heart. The first day, he moved to the beat of his heart as if Leah’le wasn’t dead, as if Rivchu wasn’t alive. He made milky coffee and dipped a dry biscuit in it, showered, went to the street corner to buy a paper, continued to the bus stop, rode the bus, got off at the pigeon-filled square, and sat down on the bench. Even when he warmed himself up a piece of chicken and some baked potato, he did not listen to the music of his heart, but only to the rhythm, and that’s how he took his afternoon nap, and got up, and opened the shutters, and sat in his armchair, and dozed off, and woke up, and went in the bathroom, and came out, and didn’t look at the pictures on the sideboard, and didn’t ask himself if he believed any of it, and only before he closed his eyes in bed did he reach over to the abandoned, plump pillow beside him and say out loud, “No, it can’t be a mistake.”
On the second morning, he noted the soft voices streaming from his heart with every beat: Riv-chu’s, a-live, Riv-chu’s, a-live. They accompanied his every footstep. Before going to sleep, his body ached with the thought that she’d waited for him for years and he never came. On the third morning he was mad at himself for giving into Shimon’s heavy hand back then in the whirlpool, for believing so easily in the nightmares. He nicked himself with the razor and watched the red water swirling down the drain. He pursed his lips and whispered at the alcohol-soaked cotton ball: Let it burn, let it burn, you deserve it, traitor. On the fourth morning, he didn’t notice two boys giggling on the sidewalk as he circled the town square, sketching in his mind the portrait of Rivchu’s beloved, the one who took his place. The one who watched as her lips grew thinner with years, her eyelids drooping, her hair graying, and how beautiful she was, how her lavender scent made all thoughts forgotten.
And she didn’t look for me, either, he whispered before falling asleep.
On the fifth morning he crushed the note with the memorial information in his fist, threw it in the bin, then pulled it out and smoothed it out on the oilcloth of the kitchen table, then crushed it and threw it away again. But he couldn’t forget the date and time, nor could he blur the features of the woman from the senior citizens’ club or her trembling voice—You’re looking for Rivchu from Peilova? She’ll be at the memorial for victims of the town in ten days, come and see.
The following day he woke up appeased, closed his eyes in front of the open window, and smiled.
Over the next five days, Elisha felt his skin stretching, his hair gently growing, and his muscles hardening and loosening, hardening and loosening at the thought of seeing his Rivchu again. He sloughed off the years that had gone by like dry skin, and wanted to run or fly, but made sure to silence the tickle rising from his feet with loud stomping, loyal to the decision that there were certain things you didn’t attempt twice. He felt no guilt as he walked past Leah’le’s folded clothes with their laundry detergent scent, or when he walked past the full sink, or when he opened the empty fridge, or when he noted the dust gathering in the corners. The shower water caressed his body like the tender rivulets in that Carpathian lake, and when he sang in front of the mirror he smiled at the thought of living out the rest of his life with Rivchu after all.
He placed a stone on Leah’le’s fresh grave in the small cemetery and then, flowers in hand, he hurried to the large cemetery, where the memorial for the victims of Peilova was about to begin. People who lived at the foot of the Carpathians before the war and grew roses and lavender in small gardens, he thought, breathing quickly. Elisha didn’t know when exactly his right eye went back to being green. It didn’t happen at the hospital, or at Leah’le’s funeral, or in the days he spent waiting, or on his way to the large cemetery—because he remembered that when he leaned down to look at himself in the side view mirror of a parked van, smoothing a lock of hair over his bald spot, a bluish cloud still reflected back at him. He remembered it because he thought about how the cloud in his eye suited the autumn weather, even though inside of him rumbled a spring he hadn’t felt since those vacations in the Carpathians before the war. Maybe it was when the actual smell of lavender invaded his nose as he approached the small cluster of people crowding around the monument. Or maybe it was when Rivchu raised her soft, wrinkled face to him, or maybe when he took his first step toward her, or maybe when she took her first step toward him, or maybe when he said: It’s me. Maybe it happened when Rivchu finished saying: I heard you died. I heard you flew, and I heard they threw you in the sea inside a sack, and then I saw you in my dream, eating a turtle, and then I saw you eating soup, and one day I felt you forgetting me, Elisha, and now here you are, appearing again.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan