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Autumn 2020

The Woman Who Wasn't

An excerpt from Illa Ben Porat's new novel about a detective investigating the case of a missing mother.

A mother of two disappears without traces, leaving behind an unsolved riddle: was she murdered, kidnapped, did she commit suicide, or did she just decide to leave everything behind, including her husband and children, and go away?

Five years later, the case continues to haunt officer Sigal Shemesh-Levin. A mother of small children herself, she finds it hard to believe that the woman simply abandoned her family. She finds clues for a potential murder, and insists on proving it despite objections raised by everyone around her. And there’s a good reason for these objections: Sigal is known for obsessing over missing persons cases. The reason for this is clear: Sigal’s father went missing in the Yom Kippur War, a fact she’s been hiding from her colleagues. Ila Ben-Porat’s novel follows Sigal during the investigation, as she learns more about the woman – and about herself.

Chapter I

The morning started badly.

Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. At the last moment, just before they left the house, Noam spilt his hot chocolate and his shirt was completely stained. When they finally arrived at the school, Shira—angry for being late thanks to him again—slammed the car door furiously and left without saying goodbye. The loud bang startled Yonatan, sitting in his baby seat in the back. He started crying and didn’t calm down the whole way.

They finally reached the kindergarten, but the troubles weren’t over yet. She couldn’t find a parking spot, and left the car parked illegally with blinking headlights, praying that no inspector would come. Quickly, she freed the crying Yonatan from his seat, and he immediately held to her, thrust his head forcefully in her neck, and stained her shirt with a mucous trail of tears and snot.

Then, when they entered the kindergarten, she realized that Michael had forgot to put in Yonatan’s bag the Nono—a tattered piece of an old pique blanket, that Yonatan couldn’t fall asleep without feeling its vanishing edges between his fingers. She swore to Miri that Michael would bring it on his way to work, but Miri wasn’t happy. “He must bring it!” She barked in her coarse voice. “No way Yonatan makes a scene again and wakes up my whole kindergarten!”

On the way back to the car, she called Michael. After calling and being put on hold three times—Why, for goodness’ sake, doesn’t he answer her call? He must understand that if she calls three times in a row, it must be urgent!—he did her the favor of returning the call. His voice was cold and distant. He was already in his car, and despite not saying it explicitly, it was clear that he really didn’t feel like returning home now, and he thought it was her fault that the Nono wasn’t in the bag. Their conversation was prickly, terribly businesslike, the stinging cloud of yesterday’s argument hovering above their every word.

She went back to the car. On the windshield waited a ticket for 200 Shekels.

When she entered the station, her eyes fell on Betty, the duty officer, sitting by the entrance desk her head stuck as deep as possible into a copy of Israel Hayom. Betty’s hair—dull and brittle sticks of dry blond—fell on her face, hiding it almost completely.

“What’s up, angel?” Betty asked from behind the curtain of hair. “Everything alright?”

What an annoying question. Can anyone say that everything’s alright with them? As she pondered how to reply, Betty raised her head and stared at her observingly.

“Difficult morning, ha?”

Betty’s voice was coarse and low like a heavy smoker’s, even though she never had. “Vocal cord warts,” she had once explained. “They say it can be healed with hypnosis, but no way I’m letting someone enter my head and start playing”.

She thought for a second, decided that the question did not require a lengthy reply. “Forget it,” she said, waving her hand tiredly, as if this morning was only a fly, a tiny insect one could get rid of with a sleight of hand. “Everything’s fine. What’s going on?”

“What’s going on?” Betty closed her eyes, pretending to focus. “Let me think… Oh, yes. Yaakov the electronic was here. The downstairs neighbor sends radio signals to his brain again. He tried to convince me that if we get the neighbor’s DNA, we’d be able to see for ourselves that he’s an alien dispersing radioactive radiation. Is this considered ‘on’?”

Yaakov, the nagging paranoid. Luckily, he left before she arrived. Ranks had always impressed him, and in his unceasing struggle with the alien neighbor he made gigantic efforts to surpass Betty and reach higher echelons.

Betty noticed the relief on her face and straightened back in her chair. “I’m glad it makes you laugh,” she said, amused, “because I told him to wait for you, that you’re the one responsible here for radioactive aliens.” A crocodile’s smile came to Betty’s face when she recognized the fear in her eyes. “Come on… I’m kidding you. Why are you so stressed out?”

She hated these kinds of jokes so much.

***

She stopped in the kitchen, like every morning on the way to her office. The water in the water heater wasn’t boiled, and she pressed the red button and put a spoonful of instant coffee and half a spoon of sugar in a transparent cup. Tzvika, whose voice she could hear from the end of the hall, stuck his pretty head through the door as if he was standing guard, only waiting for the moment she went inside to make herself something to drink. “Angel, one for me too!” he announced without bothering to completely enter the narrow kitchen, “but not instant.” He chuckled, as if insinuating that this was clearly not an option, “Black, strong, one sugar… actually, you know how I like it!”

She didn’t answer. Recently it maddened her, and not only because it was Tzvika. Every time someone asked her to make them coffee, she became petrified. It didn’t use to bother her. When she was in the army, she made thousands of coffee cups without even thinking about it. But now it made her angry. She felt like telling Tzvika to go to hell with his black-strong-god-forbid-if-it’s-instant, but she controlled herself. She didn’t feel like jumping down his throat. It’s not that she was scared of him or anything, not like that at all, she just didn’t have the energy for more arguments. She had enough of these at home.

She reached out her hand, took the plastic box with the blue cover, and put a spoonful of black coffee and a spoonful of sugar into a cup like hers. The water boiled and she poured it into the cups, adding milk to hers. When she turned back to the door, she saw that Tzvika was already gone. What now? Does he expect her to bring him the coffee to his office too? She left the cup on the counter, grabbed her bag and her coffee and went out to the hall.

Tzvika stood in the entrance to his office, talking loudly on his phone. “Your coffee is in the kitchen,” she muttered angrily as she passed him. Tzvika pulled the phone away from his ear and covered it with his hand. “You made it strong, ha? Not Polish?” he whispered to her and winked.

She held her cup forcefully and continued to walk quickly, not answering him. Drops of hot coffee sprayed on her hand, but she didn’t slow down. Her heart beat wildly, and this too annoyed her. What is this? What’s happening to her? Why does she get so mad like this? It’s only Tzvika—nothing new. She continued to walk quickly, trying in vain to not think about the reason for this new sensitivity, but immediately, against her will, her thoughts wandered to Amiram. It’s because of him that she’s like this. Ever since he left, she has been on the guard constantly. Tense. Suspicious. Almost contracted.

She recalled a cat she once saw in one of Shira’s YouTube videos. Its whiskers were cut, and it swayed in his place without any sense of direction, embarrassed and miserable. It couldn’t decide where to turn. Now she knows exactly how it felt, that cat. Ever since Amiram left, she has felt like everything’s changed. Even the air in the station became thinner, as though on a high mountain top.

Behind her back in the hall she heard Tzvika walking to the kitchen, and a moment later he came out with the coffee she had made him. He was still speaking loudly on the phone, and she again recalled Amiram. He’d never asked her to make him coffee. To the contrary. When they sat in his office, he used to get up and make it for both of them, and he also never had to ask how she liked it—he always remembered, exactly.

Guilt penetrated her lungs, heavy, gray and thick. It had been more than three weeks, and she still hasn’t managed to bring herself to speak to him. What kind of a person is she?

The small metal plaque engraved with her name twinkled at her from her office door like a friendly wink: “Lt. S. Shemesh-Levin.” Suddenly she couldn’t control herself and imagined the sign without the hyphen. Only Sigal Shemesh. Just like that. Clean. Like it used to be. How would she feel if she was really like that? But she immediately took hold of herself: what nonsense. It’s just an argument. A regular argument. Why did it cross her mind suddenly? She shook her head angrily, tossing it from side to side without noticing. She’s not going to think about it now, no she isn’t. She has much more urgent things to deal with. She entered the room quickly and closed the door behind her.

The window in the small room was tall and small, more a hatch then a window, hardly letting any light inside, but she wasn’t bothered by it. For a second she stood and looked around. Nothing has changed. Everything was in its place, exactly as she left it yesterday. Now she can finally lock the morning, with its myriad of irritating events, in a dark drawer at the back of her head—thrust Shira there with her furious faces, Michael with his never-ending complaints, Tzvika with his damn coffee—and forget everything for at least several hours. She can start breathing again.

She turned on the light, took a sip of the coffee and put it on the desk. Then, just like every other morning, she took out her phone and put it on the desk too, and then hung her bag on the hanger by the door and sat in her chair—a permanent and unchanging routine. Again, her gaze encircled the small and austere room, and she felt her head becoming clear and the air returning to her lungs. Betty always distorted her face in dissatisfaction when she happened by her office: “Why don’t you decorate it a little? Like a man, you are! Is it so hard to get a flowerpot? A picture? It looks like a detention cell. I don’t understand how you can sit in here like that. Doesn’t it bother you?”

No. It didn’t bother her. She needed no decorations and no distractions. She didn’t even put a framed photograph of Michael and the children on her desk, like everyone else. On purpose. She didn’t want them in front of her when she worked. Yes, this was exactly how she liked it. Only the bare necessities and nothing more. As few things as possible, each in its own place. Exactly the opposite of the eternal mess at home.

Michael always complained that he constantly had to clean after her at home. He says that she’s worse than the kids. The few times he visited her office, he was astounded: I don’t get it, if you can be so organized, so pedantic, so why aren’t you like this at home? And he really didn’t understand—this was the point exactly. This kind of order is only possible when you’re completely alone. When no one touches you and moves you and interrupts you. When no one goes through your shelves, or drawers, and there are no mom I was only looking for the scotch tape, or do you have a ribbon for wrapping a present? Or say, where is the envelope package here? No. Here, in the small, dark room, everything is done exactly her way. Meticulously and with no discounts given.

And also, he shouldn’t pretend. He knows as well as she does that at home it’s already a lost cause. Chaos took over a long time ago.

She bent down to turn on the computer, sat in her chair and took a deep breath.

Five greenish cardboard folders were waiting for her, in a neat pile, on the desk. She looked at them, spread them in a line in front of her, and took out a photograph from each. She carefully placed the photos on the folders—each on the folder from which it was taken—then leaned a bit forward and stared at them at length.

Five folders, five pictures: an old, balding man wearing glasses and a sweater that showed a plaid shirt beneath it, sitting on a white leather sofa; an elegant older woman with gray eyes, white hair, and pearl earrings, standing stiff in a place that looked like a wedding hall, looking seriously into the camera; a young man with a goatee, naked from the waist up, a lit cigarette in his hand and a dreamy, distant look on his face; a thin man, bearded and with unkempt hair, his smile revealing black, rotten teeth; a young woman with a taut ponytail, with long face, serious and wearing glasses.

She sat for a long time without moving and looked at the pictures.

Two women and three men. Five humans. Existing and not existing.

Flickering for a moment in unexpected places; flashing, blurry, in the corner of the eye and immediately evaporating again; insinuated by a familiar body gesture, or a typical gait in a crowd; appearing in dreams and scattering vague hints; present and evasive at the same time.

She sighed and leaned back. The ghost shadows continue to observe her, and she shuddered. There was something unnatural about them. Something tinkering with the world’s normal order. They look like reflections trapped inside mirrors, like photographs that had turned into negatives, like clocks ticking backwards or words pronounced from the end to the beginning.

Five unraveled stories. Lacking. Amputated.

Five missing persons files.

Translated by Maayan Eitan. 

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Illa Ben Porat

Ila Ben Porat (1972) lives in Tel Aviv. She is a writer, a translator, and a musician. She has a PhD from the Department of Education at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and teaches sociology at the Kibbutzim College.

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Maayan Eitan

Maayan Eitan holds a master’s degree in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her first novel, titled "Love", was published in Israel this year. Her previous publications in English include I Once Thought That Normalcy Would Come Like Rain or Wind and Charm Me into Submission in the Nov/Dec 2019 edition of the Kenyon Review Online. Her work is regularly published in Israeli literary magazines.

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