The Sataf spring in the hills near Jerusalem. (Perach; courtesy of the author)

Nine years later, I found the spring. Without any maps. Without any one-to-fifty-thousand scale. It was my nose that guided me there: the road signs exuded their smells, and I followed them. I’ve always been hooked on signs.

The spring doesn’t appear on any maps; I had to scrape up its name from the depths of my memory. All kinds of names went through my head: Ein Eshkaf. Ein Sapir. Ein Shalosh. Ein Kubi. Ein Tamar. Einot Uzi. Einot Telem.

It’s hard to find, you told me, but I found it. Me. Not a tour guide or geologist, not some random hiker, but me, a lab rat who finds markers and traces in ammonia, ether, gray field-mice, who can do a dissection with her eyes closed, who carves things up and studies them. Me.

When you left—it was after the High Holidays, and life had returned to normal. Tasks that had been postponed lined themselves up in front of me, waiting to be completed. The days were marked by routine and uniformity.

When you took the car that night, I didn’t sense anything. And it is this void that reboots my acrimony every night, that coats my tongue with bitterness.

And this land, which knows all about leaving signs, could have made a little more effort on my behalf, could have sent a light breeze or a strangely shaped cloud. A colorful butterfly, maybe, or a mouse that refused to die on the sacrificial lab bench. It had happened before. But now, it wasn’t making an effort, it didn’t show me any signs. Not even when you took the car. So many times, when my hands reached out to give you the keys, my mind would reach out as well: to images and visions, hallucinations and fears. But this time? Not even the tiniest spark of electricity. No extra heart beats. My breathing was neither deep nor shallow, it was just normal: air going in, inflating my lungs, then escaping in a reflexive exhale of carbon dioxide. A process that was all drabness and dreariness.

* * *

There are so many words, my son, to describe what you did to me. You slipped away. You were called up to the heavens. You died. You were killed. You passed. You went. You ended. You were taken. You were cut short.

And it wasn’t a stray bullet that stole you away, my son, but the driver’s villainous sleep. A murderer, a master of her craft, she loaded a bullet, and there, between four and five in the morning, led you to your execution.

* * *

There are so many words, my son, to describe what you did to me. You slipped away. You were called up to the heavens. You died. You were killed. You passed. You went. You ended. You were taken. You were cut short.

The signs came later. Too late.

But first came the announcement. The knock on the door. Who goes to visit someone at this hour? A short argument between me and Ya’akov over who would get the door. It must be someone looking for a neighbor who hadn’t bothered to hang a name plate. Ya’akov gets up and lets them in. A frigid silence fills the room, and Ya’akov’s baritone voice disappears. I stay on the couch, flipping through the newspaper.

Ya’akov comes in. They stay outside. His face isn’t closed, it’s open, and me? Not yet. He tells me, straight out. And all I can think is, I am bereaved. A bereaved mother in Israel. An angry mother bear.

What does a newly bereaved mother feel?

Nothing. Nothingness bloomed inside me. A field of nothingness took hold of my heart.

And then, only then, did small signs start cropping up. A little rain here, a little rain there. A rainbow arched over the village like an evil omen. The store ran out of bread and milk. A stopped-up sink unclogged on its own. Those kinds of signs, which we, in all our wisdom, associate with some kind of disaster.

* * *

Then, much later, millions of hours after the identification, it occurred to me that you were killed the week we read the story of Noah in synagogue. Words from high school, from the army, from my youth movement, floated around in my head and tried to activate my still-tied tongue: All flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. The end of all flesh has come. The earth is filled with violence. I will bring floodwaters upon the earth to destroy all life under the heavens.

But God didn’t come to me. He didn’t equivocate and he didn’t offer alternatives. And I didn’t build an ark to rescue your body.

Case closed. Casket sealed.

* * *

I wasn’t trying to cancel the evil decree. 

A lab woman is all too familiar with that moment when a living thing becomes inert. The laxness signaling the end. The loosening of the taut threads that had been connecting the now-limp limbs.

What I wanted was a deferral. If God had come to me, or sent one of his angels, I would have postponed everything. I would have turned the world’s activation dial, the one that illuminates the sun and turns the stalks green, and extinguished the light. I would have mixed the sugar into the water before putting in the coffee, like you did when you were in the army. One lethargic stir, then another. The coffee, my son, would cool down very slowly. The air would separate into tiny molecules, clouds of air would drift through space, and you—who always complained of being too hot—would ask for a sweater. With lazy, languid patience I would choose the big sweater with all those dozens of buttons, and I would button you up, one button after another. The words would come out smoothly and deftly, as if an invisible pen was writing it all down, so that if I ever wanted to find the spring, I would remember your precise instructions. Slowly, slowly, we would wrap ourselves in this interval of prolonged, and prolonging, time.

And then, only then, would I make the identification.

But the identification came quickly. Instantly. The people around me were saying something about hysteria. They were holding up Ya’akov. My daughters converged around me like a chorus of cicadas. I wanted to make sure. To feel your mole—the concave crater the size of a nutmeg seed—that had been left intact. To check your birthmarks. To see for myself that you were indeed released from your body, while the whole time my heart is waiting for the moment, that wild, benevolent moment that would prove that it wasn’t really you, that it was a case of mistaken identity, that you’d simply disappeared once again, losing yourself in some godforsaken spring.

* * *

Even before I found the mouth of the spring, I knew I was in the right place. I could hear tiny echoes resonating in my head. A rustle. A murmur. The original name of Eilat, Umm Rashrash.  The Hebrew word for poor, rushash. A weak heart. Tree roots. But the syllables didn’t fuse into a single, solid word that could illuminate the dark corners of my memory. Well-meaning branches spread their arms out to me, and, unencumbered by fear, I cleared out a spot and planted myself there.

* * *

In my bereavement support group, they said it was important to “let it out.” Let out the pain. Let out the agony. Let out the thoughts. As if it were actually possible to clear away the anthills of thoughts that had piled up over the years.

They warned me not to keep it in my belly, and I was reminded of a myth from my childhood: if you kept something inside, a film of white fuzz would grow on your tongue.

But in my case, my son, there is nothing to let out.

The patch of grass in my heart gets caught on the rough edges of my soul, and a terrible, silent nothingness takes over. Even my eyes aren’t working properly. My eyes used to generate tears on command. They would get me excused from boring classes. They would release tears when I was waiting my turn at the doctor’s office, when I found the book I wanted at the library, when I didn’t find the book I wanted at the library. Torrents of tears, at every opportunity. “If you’re going to cry, you could at least do it next to the Kinneret watershed,” you used to tell me whenever my eyes would swell up.

Now, even artificial tears don’t help. I am dry as dust.

We meet once every few months; Ya’akov drags me with him. I can’t interpret words anymore. Mumbled syllables move through my ears, and only later can I decipher “My heart told me” and “I had a feeling.” I study the faces around me; we have nothing in common but the thin, purplish bereavement circles around our eyes.

Once I nodded, unintentionally, and when the facilitator gave me an encouraging smile, there was no turning back. Grass and shrubs flew off my tongue, and everyone at the meeting stared at me with a look I recognized from the lab, a scientific look. They analyzed me; I was a synthetic sample. After that I never went back.

* * *

I study the faces around me; we have nothing in common but the thin, purplish bereavement circles around our eyes.

I’m here, my son, it’s me—your tall, fastidious mother who would never leave the house without make-up—stretched out on a barren patch of earth, curled up in your oversized sweater.

I didn’t pack any cosmetics; make-up is nothing more than an attempt to obliterate time. Among the dense, aging trees, wrinkles are a valuable asset.

* * *

Infinity is incomprehensible. And this year, the ninth, when the days started sliding and spinning around me, nameless and timeless, I decided it was time to take action.

The memorial service is uninspiring: one cliché chasing another over the grave. That teacher of yours repeats the eulogy he gave last year, word for word. The soldier who had been your girlfriend—the one who always reminded me of a deer in headlights—is chuckling with her boyfriend, sporting him like a bracelet on her wrist. I examine them with a new fondness, as if I were a photographer, floating above them while at the same time monitoring their every motion.

And suddenly, among the words and the eulogies, lovely sounds start playing through my head. A small, delicate bell resonates in my brain, lucid and pure. And between the “destroy the earth” and “the end of all flesh,” the sound of water flows through my body. And the earth filled with water.

Now I know that I am going.

A person who knows something is a different person altogether. Decisiveness floods the bones. The legs that drag me to the lab, day in and day out, are filled with tiny pulses of life. Instead of greeting my colleagues with a non-committal tilt of the head, I hold my head still. The nose that used to recoil from the smell of ammonia takes in deep breaths, and the hands that pour the borax are no longer trembling.

Decisiveness rushes into me, and that evening, Ya’akov asks what’s up with me.

* * *

Feverish from the unexpected joy, from the actions that would, at long last, latch onto my stagnating body, I packed a small suitcase. I didn’t tell Ya’akov what was up with me, I just hugged him happily; he didn’t ask questions or press me. Maybe he was so pleased with this new wife of his, he didn’t want to spoil anything.

Actually, I didn’t say anything to anyone. I wasn’t going to return to my boss’s kind eyes. For years now, he’s been afraid to fire me. After all, his gaze says, she lost her only son. I will do his dirty work for him. Surely my son’s death is not his fault. 

Nor, son, did I say anything to your chirping sisters, the quintet that used to huddle around you so adoringly. I worked quickly and quietly, like a lab-rat.

* * *

When I discovered traces of a campfire, I was filled with a joy I hadn’t felt in a long time. I gathered up the twigs that were piled on the ground; they seemed to be the remnants of birds’ nests. With expansive movements, I threw them into the fire, adding one small branch, then another, just like you taught me. Resisting the temptation to toss in the whole forest. Feeding a fire requires patience.

* * *

Once, when I was young, we—your grandfather and I—came upon a chilling sight. We were driving, and at one of the intersections, we saw a car go up in flames. People had gathered around, calling out to each other. I stared, enrapt, at the circle of fire, red tongues shooting out of it haphazardly, ruining the symmetry. 

Your grandfather tried to help. He got out of the car, a long iron rod in his hand, but he, too, was unable to break through the circle of fire. He returned to the car flustered and defeated.

The next day, the front page of the morning paper featured the circle of fire. And the family—there were two babies—that had burned to death. And the VW Beetle’s rear engine. And the time that was wasted before help arrived.

When you died, there was no circle of fire. The papers didn’t report it. Death, banal, in a tie and jacket, just came and took you.

* * *

I am sitting here, trying to count the days, but I can’t. Days have been broken, cut in half. Some hours go roaming through space, others hurry off like they can’t get away from me fast enough. I am enveloped in ambiguity, and it is suddenly imperative that I find the name of the spring. My damned memory, however, covers it up artfully, seducing me instead with false associations that only intensify the forgetfulness.

The food is gone. I do have money, and I could run over to the main street and buy myself something to eat, but the fasting has filled my bones with a dizzying heaviness, and I stay where I am, close to the ground.

These days, I am utterly fearless. Like you, who never experienced fear, who shook his head scornfully at the depth of the water in the Yehudea River and jumped. Who hiked through every village. Out there, in the world, they call this irresponsibility, but now that I’m here, only now, do I recognize that it was simply a lack of knowledge.

Fragments of time pass, and the heaviness in my body gives way to lightness. My stomach grumbles softly with an agreeable emptiness, and my tongue is coated with a thick, white film. There are many, many things inside, and I…  I don’t know how to let them out.

* * *

These days, I am utterly fearless. Out there, in the world, they call this irresponsibility, but now that I’m here, only now, do I recognize that it was simply a lack of knowledge.

From the spring whose name I’ve forgotten, I drink until I’m sated. Sometimes I think about the outside world. About the note I left for Ya’akov. About his neck tensing up as he tries to understand, about his whole body clenching. I think about the warmth of his voice when he told the girls. Whenever I feel the urge to stand up, I distract myself with images of policemen, sniffing dogs, signs with my picture on them posted across the country. There is something wild and exciting about these thoughts, and my bereavement assumes a different demeanor.

* * *

I wasn’t alone for long; you had talked to me about this, too. I remember the image you used: “This land is a well full of people. If you throw a stone, you’re bound to hit someone.”

I knew someone was coming. A new wind was blowing in my direction, and fine dust was rising up from the earth.

The man arrived during one of the fragments of time. A man whose legs were very familiar to him, always ready to move, to walk, muscles and tendons bursting out, eager to help.

I didn’t light a fire; I just sat there, shivering, clutching my food to my chest. That was how he found me. He looked alarmed, but quickly erased the shock from his face, and, just as quickly, turned away, as if he had caught sight of something forbidden.

My body was weak but my mind was clear. I looked at the slender branches protruding from the trees, at the small animals scampering around my feet, sights that I normally couldn’t have seen without my glasses. The moon looked close. Distant sounds were getting closer.

The man appeared again, his arms full of branches. Mumbling to himself, he added them to the fire and lit the kindling, just like you used to do, my son. He moved slowly, patiently, until the fire was finally ignited and I could see a cotton beard, with a nose and two eyes swallowed up inside it.

In a soft voice, he asked if he could sit with me. He looked like a ventriloquist, the way his lips moved, hidden inside his beard.

* * *

The fragments of time came together, and words floated in space. Soft, soft words. He was sixty. Traveling through the country. Incapable of staying in his house: he’d always had a hard time inside walls.

And he didn’t ask, “And you?” He didn’t ask for anything in return. Every now and then he’d toss a couple of twigs into the fire and shift his position. He’d smoke a cigarette. Back when things were normal, I couldn’t abide smoke; even the smell of a wick in the lab would make me cough. But now I was breathing it in. Expanding my lungs to get them used to it.

Even as I sat there in my shabby clothes, I saw him looking at the gold bracelet on my wrist. I’m fifty-three, I told him. And he didn’t wrinkle his brow in horror, and he didn’t say, “You look great for your age.” He just sat there quietly, letting the information sink in. We didn’t bother each other. Sometimes he’d get up and go wherever it was that he went. I didn’t even crane my neck to see where he was sleeping.

I wasn’t afraid.

The fragments of time came together, and words floated in space. Soft, soft words. He was sixty. Traveling through the country. Incapable of staying in his house: he’d always had a hard time inside walls.

I didn’t ask him about his life, or where he was going. In the evenings I fell asleep curled up in your big sweater, empty with hunger, and a sudden flame would shatter the darkness in front of my closed eyes.

What did I do for all those days? I don’t have an answer. Time slipped away. Sometimes I would exercise. I’d go down to the nameless spring and immerse myself in the water, fully clothed. Sometimes I’d drift through the small forest and look for signs. Maybe you’d left a letter or a short note. Maybe you’d sat down to eat, right here, next to the tree.  It’s been nine years, but, my son, some people survive for thousands of years. Such are the foolish thoughts of bereavement.

The wanderer disappeared. Between the trees, the sun and the moon changed shifts, promptly, without wasting any time on friendly banter. And I didn’t care that he’d gone. The same way I didn’t care about how my skin was wallowing in layers of dust.

* * *

Then one evening, he came back. I was barely conscious, but somehow my mind managed to soak up the last sunbeams that burst through the leaves. My blurry vision doubled and tripled the man into a multitude of silhouettes. Cotton beards, soft and thick, came at me from every angle.

He bent down to me, looked deep into my eyes, and said, “You have to eat something.” His look wasn’t soft and consoling, but something in him looked familiar. There were purplish rings around his eyes, and I recognized him, and I identified him.

* * *

Then came the tears. Long years of drought had come to an end. Big round tears fell, and in my mind I could see them filling up the small spring.

He didn’t say a word, and he didn’t offer me a shoulder to cry on. And I remembered a phrase from the long-ago days, back when I liked to read: “A comforting indifference.” I couldn’t remember who said it, and I didn’t care.

The wanderer made me campfire soup, with a big potato floating on top of it. I chugged it down in big gulps, replenishing my reservoir of tears.

He bent down to me, looked deep into my eyes, and said, “You have to eat something.” There were purplish rings around his eyes, and I recognized him, and I identified him.

He knew I had identified him. Someone who has lost a child has a particular mark, and without introduction he said: “Twins.” They left me in Lebanon. And the words “left me” sounded so right, I almost laughed.

He smoked, and the combination of smoke and soup made me nauseated. Later, I fell into an intense, heavy sleep, the kind I haven’t had since you left.

When I woke up, I was ready to rejoin the world, which had already come to an end; perhaps it would never be destroyed again. My only worry was that I wouldn’t be able to find my Ya’akov in this new land.

* * *

He disappeared. Like a kind, old uncle with excellent manners and good taste, with a hollow voice like that of a withered tree in the desert. I thought of Elijah the prophet rising up to heaven in a whirlwind.

And all at once, the name of the spring came back to me: Ein Rashosh. The Spring of Hardship. A reckless, jagged name.

* * *

I emerged from the spring shabby and dirty. I could feel my body bounding with a new elasticity and lightness. The world looked different. Softer. Less angular.

And I knew that nothing had changed.

I didn’t know if it was the beginning of the week or the end, but either way, they would report more car accidents. In a dry voice, the announcer would tell us about the scandalous life of the driver responsible. I was familiar with all the predictable components: the rollovers, the sharp turns, the DWIs. All the factors that led to this one outcome, which resulted in so many purplish bereavement rings.

I knew. But I missed the girls. The way they gathered around me.

I missed Ya’akov. His warm baritone. His playful voices. Our Saturday night squabbles over the crossword puzzle. His large, kind hands. His longings.

I’m not alone, I repeated to myself, making sure my vocal cords still worked after so many hours of idleness. I’m not alone. There is a sun that is completely shining, and a gentle breeze escorting me out of Ein Rashosh. There are grandchildren who will, someday, gambol through the country, in springs, on hikes. There is a time for everything. Everything. And He will never again smite every living thing as He had done. And it is not yet the end of all flesh.

I am not alone, I thought, and I tried to unthink it.

Translation by Shira Atik