They came flooding in. Over 70,000 Jews on more than 100 ships from the ashes of what Europe left behind. Packed together like sardines on ships that could barely float. Skeletons, lucky to be alive. No sooner had they taken in the moist salty air of Ha’ aretz that the men, drained from combat were dragged off to fight yet again, and the women left to piece together a home and livelihood from the cataclysm the British Empire left behind. Independence, a word always written in blood.
Many settled into houses that were already build, such is the house in our story. Although it didn’t have an elevator, it was quiet posh for its time with a black and white speckled staircase and its ornate black side rails that were most assuredly the pride and joy of some long gone blacksmith. The front of the building enjoyed three large windows on every floor that spanned the height of the floor and a width as wide as a Maccabean is tall. They faced Yitzhak Sade Street where you could see the residents climb to their apartments. At one time they were covered by thick protective glass. But they had long since been blown away by the ravages of war. Now they kindly let the heat in on the long humid summer days.
Alta, the first of the homesteaders, lived in apartment nine. The leftmost apartment of the three apartments on the third and top floor. A handsome vestige of the German Templars who made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land three generations before. They were not the first to feel the pull of the magical strings of the Promised Land and surely not the last. The once white stone bricks of the exterior were now greyed but its sturdy construction protected it from the trauma of war induced ruin.
This morning, just like every morning at nine o’clock, Alta brought out her rickety old dining chair.. Then she planted her bony butt on the flat cloth that once was a cushion and sat. Sometimes she stretched her skinny neck over the rails to see if anyone was climbing up the stairs to visit but no one came, except on Friday afternoons, when a volunteer dropped off a basket of food for the week and a Sabbath candle.
There she sat for three long months from morning till evening and that was that! So what, you may ask does someone think about on a chair for twelve hours a day, seven days a week for three long months? Well that is a mystery, buried long ago with Alta, and the rest of the enigmas who sit on chairs, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Less than a mile away, at the Port of Haifa, Berta and Sophie who’s boat docked only a few hours before kissed their husbands good bye. Upon landing, the two men were conscripted into the Haganah and loaded onto a bus headed for Jerusalem filled with many other weary, but able bodied men.
Each woman held one suitcase, each suitcase contained all that was left of their family legacy. There they stood, Berta and Sophie with each of their children and waved good bye to their husbands. Shortly after the bus departed, two friendly soldiers introduced themselves. One a woman with dark blond hair tied in a low braided bun, and a tall lanky young man, both looked barely twenty. The man wore a khaki uniform with a short sleeve shirt, baggy pants and black combat boots and the woman wore a similar uniform with a skirt and heavy black shoes. They were in charge of showing the women their new home which was only two blocks away. “Do you like candy?” The female soldier asked the children. Itzhak and Rachel smiled and jumped up and down with excitement. “I thought so”. She said and pulled out four pieces of freshly made Turkish delight. She gave two pieces to each child. Rachel was having a difficult time with the clear plastic so like a true gentleman Itzhak unwrapped Rachel’s first and gave her the candy before unwrapping his. “Here we are”. Said the male soldier as he stopped at the white stone apartment. He was quiet but had gentle black eyes. “Madams, you are on the top floor, apartment seven, you have a neighbor who lives across the hall.”
Together, they climbed up the three flights of stairs. At the second flight of stairs they saw Alta, sitting on her chair with her bloomers sticking out of her filthy flower print dress. She looked down at them drooling with excitement. She couldn’t believe someone was actually coming up the stairs to talk to her. “Shalom”. Said the female soldier as she walked up the last flight of stairs. “Buenos Dias”. Cackled the old woman and let out a loud, pitiful smile. “Ma nishma?” “My chest hurts!” The old woman blurted out. “It must be the humidity.” She said and let out a deep phlegmy cough. “I can’t breathe and my butt hurts from sitting on this flat cushion.” Not knowing how to reply the female soldier just smiled. “Hello young man” Alta smiled exposing her gums and two front teeth at the bottom of her mouth. Her smile wasn’t warm or inviting. It was cold and flat like a frozen lake. The soldier with the gentle eyes glanced at her. It was his nature to smile and be friendly but he couldn’t smile back at the woman, something about her repulsed him so he fiddled for the key in the tiny sachet attached to his belt, opened the door to the apartment instead. Then he motioned Berta and Sophie to come inside. Everyone followed except Berta who stood out in the hall trapped by the woman. Berta too was repulsed by the old woman but was also for some unknown reason drawn to her. “Shalom, I’m Berta.” She said timidly. Everyone else was already in the apartment. “No need to talk like all the youngsters, Hebrew is stupid, it’s a dead language.” Speak your language, you are Sephardic like me.” Berta didn’t know what to say, she was proud of the Hebrew she was learning. She wanted to look to the future, not stay in the past so she just smiled at the old woman and followed everyone inside leaving the door open.
The soldiers showed the two women around the apartment. The entrance gave way to a spacious living room which curved into the kitchen and opened to a large balcony that followed the curve of the kitchen. There was no furniture, but someone left clean blankets, a heavy comforter, and two pillows.
Suddenly there was a crash outside in the hallway. Berta and the two soldiers rushed to the door to see what happened. Alta was lying face down on the white and black speckled tile, her chair knocked on its side. “Whoa” she sighed. “I can’t believe I fell over!” The soldiers rushed to help her up on her chair. “I can’t believe I fell down. I don’t know what happened. I was just sittin’ here minding my own business and next thing you know I’m flat on the ground. It must be the hot air in this city! They don’t have NO air up here! Woo! Thank you thank you, what would I do without you here. I would have just laid on the ground till God came to put me out of my misery!” After securing the old woman on her chair the two soldiers said their good byes and walked back down the steps leaving Berta still in the hallway. I don’t like that old woman” he said as they descended the stairs. “She is a cadi”. “What’s that, said the female soldier”. “The village witch, she brings malady! You just watch” he declared. “She is bad luck”. “Oh, I’m sure she just a harmless old woman.
“Are you alright?” Asked Berta “You know growin’ old ain’t for sissies!” Alta moved side to side in her chair and stared blankly at her. Her green eyes were dull and empty. “I never thought I would get this damn old and have to put up with this old body”. Her head turned from side to side like a marionette. “Isn’t it pitiful? Wooo, getting’ old ain’t for sissies I tell you!” Berta looked at her trying to show concern but there was something off putting about the old women.
“My name is Alta, it means old woman.” Alta laughed, her voice moving up and down like glass shattering on concrete. Bertha looked back at the old woman and tried to smile but her lips only flattened, a smile wouldn’t come out. It was like the woman cast an evil spell on her. All of the sudden she had a headache. Berta walked back inside, but left her door open, as was her habit in Bulgaria.
It was nine o’clock in the evening. Alta stood and scuttled into her apartment, leaving her chair outside her door. She was hungry she navigated her way in the dim shadows to the kitchen. Blankets covered her windows and she could barely see inside. She touched her way through the furniture to find her matches, she had only five left. Alta then grabbed a can of sardines from the pantry and with the small key attached she rolled the lid back, then she ripped off a piece of the three day old challah that lay on her kitchen counter. She ate standing up next to the kitchen counter by her oil lamp.
It was time for bed. Alta cleared a thin thoroughfare between her kitchen and the couch. This is where she slept. The apartment did have a bedroom with a bed, but it was too difficult to reach it with all the furniture that had been piled in on itself. Alta didn’t mind the furniture. This is why she chose the apartment in the first place. She took down the wool blanket off the window and rolled herself in it like a sleeping bag on the couch. She laid on her back and starred into the darkness before her. Her back hurt. Her arthritis was acting up again in her left knee and her feet were too cold. She was too full from that sardines but also hungry. They were too fishy. Where did they get those sardines anyway? America! What do Americans know about sardines? Americans know nothin’ bout nothin’? Spoiled and lazy that’s all they are. Oh I wish I was a horse. They are the lucky ones. When they get old someone shoots ‘em, puts ‘em right out of their misery. Oh wish that soldier didn’t spare me. He should ‘ev just shot me then and there. Put me out of my misery I wish I was a horse!” Her legs tapped up and down moving the couch from side to side. She stood up and then laid back down. “Oh I wish I were a horse”. She said one last time before finally drifting into an uncomfortable sleep.
In apartment seven Berta and Sophie turned the heavy down comforters and two pillows into a makeshift bed. They placed the two pillows in the middle and laid Rachel and Itzhak between them. They fell instantly asleep holding each other like Romeo and Juliet. Sophie too fell asleep quickly but Berta laid staring at the darkness before her, she was wide awake. She could hear the soft metered breaths under Sophie’s faint snores. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep but the old woman appeared in her mind. “Alta, old lady, what an odd name. Was she born an old woman?” The old woman pulled at her soul. She felt sorry for the pitiful old hag, yet at the same time she repulsed her. She felt a kick coming from her womb. She rubbed her belly. She never felt herself drift to sleep but the next thing she knew, beams of sunlight pierced through her eye lids.
Berta woke up in a foul mood, everything around her seemed covered with soot. Sophie was in the kitchen and had Irish oats still warm on the gas stove and was spooning them into beautiful bowls she found left in the cupboard by the sink. She handed Berta the bowl and from the drawer to her right pulled a table spoon. Berta held it up to the kitchen window and inspected it with her refined eye. She recognized the engravings. Odiot, she thought. She remembered eating from silver like this as a child at her grandparents’ house on the Sabbath. She took a bite, expecting the oats to be bland, like what they ate on the ship but to her surprise, they were pleasantly sweet. “The oats are sweet.” She smiled. “Look”. Said Sophie with her characteristically warm smile. Her face was not as pretty as Berta’s but her beautiful soul shined through her features; always happy, always saw the good in everything. She pulled open a side drawer next to her. Inside was a small white box with black print. SuBstoff Saccerin Wehrmachts – Packung. “Must have been left by the German Templars.” Said Berta. Berta’s mood lifted. She was glad she was with Sophie. There was something about Sophie that always brought her spirits up. She went to open the front door, as was her habit from Bulgaria. It was still early. The rickety chair was empty and the door was still closed. Berta sighed with relief rubbing her growing belly for comfort. Guilt filled her insides. “Poor old woman. It’s not her fault she is so ugly.” Still, there was something off putting about her beyond her looks. Berta couldn’t quite understand what it was, but something about the woman felt poisonous. Berta went inside leaving her door open. She and Sophie had a lot of work to do.
Berta and Sophie opened up the kitchen drawers and cabinets and washing them, keeping what they wanted and putting what they didn’t want on the kitchen balcony. The children helped by running the items to the balcony. Suddenly they heard s terrible screech from the hallway. Berta and Sophie ran to the hall. There lay Alta, sprawled across the floor in front of her rickety chair. Berta and Sophie ran to help her back on the chair. “Whoo!” Cried Alta. “I tell you what, gettin’ old ain’t for sissies!” “Are you alright?” Asked Berta with great concern, she felt even guiltier now for thinking badly about her. “Oh I am turrible, turrible. What a life. What a life, I wish God would just come take me away! You know I was just sittin’ here and suddenly poof, on the floor I go. It must have been the stroke I had yesterday.” Berta thought about yesterday but didn’t recall Alta having a stroke. Again, something didn’t seem right. Berta and Sophie made sure Alta was secure on her chair and then went back to their housework. For an hour they worked. Berta was mopping the living room floor and humming a nocturne when Alta called to her. She abruptly stopped mopping to see if Alta was alright. “You know what I miss, I miss the old country”. “Yes me too.” Agreed Bertha and for a moment reminisced about the beautiful estate she left behind in Plovdiv and summer time spend in the cool breeze of the mountains. The old woman’s eyes brightened. Berta stood still holding her mop while visions of long afternoons unfolded before her eyes. Alta leaned forward in her chair rubbing her hands. Berta shrank back. There was that feeling again. The feeling of misery. She searched Alta’s eyes for understanding and only received a blank stare back. There was something empty about the woman, something she felt yet couldn’t understand.
What happens to someone who sits on a chair twelve hours a day seven days a week for three long months? What about longer? What about for a lifetime? They say idle hands do the devils work but what about an idle mind? When good people remember bad things we call it learning. But what happens when bad people remember good things? That my friends is called envy and just like misery loves company envy also loves and audience. Alta, finally had an audience. Berta was a fish swimming in safe waters, and Alta was a fisherman, casting her line. Berta continued to stand in her doorway holding her mop and staring at the old woman questioningly. She wondered why she was here in this land of opportunity and not working to make things better. Alta coughed and then moved from side to side in her chair. “You know I don’t really like those soldiers.” “Why not they seem very nice.” Replied Berta in vexation. “The man is a phony, I can tell by his eyes.” Berta thought back to the two soldiers. “He seemed honest and sincere.” Berta felt trapped. She didn’t want to be rude to the old woman but at the same time didn’t want to waste her time.
She was relieved when she heard Sophie’s melodic voice calling her from the kitchen. “I must go inside” said Berta and she wished the old woman a good morning as she walked back inside leaving the front door open, as was her habit from Bulgaria, She and Sophie went back to the kitchen and continued to clean. Ten minutes had not yet passed and she heard the pitiful sound of her name coming from the hallway. Berta went to check on the old woman. The old woman looked at her with the same blank stare as she left ten minutes before. “I don’t know if I told you or not but…” The old woman trailed off. “Is it Tuesday?” “It’s Wednesday” replied Berta trying to seem friendly. “Woo, my mind is all messed up! It must have been that stroke I had. Lordy Lordy, I don’t have NO memory. You know gettin’ old ain’t for sissies.” Her head bopped from side to side as she exposed her gums. Berta stood silently in the doorway. “You know what I miss”, said Alta. “I miss Panagyurska lukanka. “Do you remember that Salami?” Berta was trying to get out of the conversation but the woman continued talking. In Berta, a longing awoke. A longing for things forgotten. “Yes I too miss the fine things of the old country”. The old woman’s eyes glistened and there was a twinkle in her left eye. It was not the reminiscence of a joy remembered, like good food and family gatherings, it was something else altogether. It was a sharing of something missing. A filling of an empty hole with another empty hole inside. It was envy. Alta was pulling her in, like a fish on a hook and she was ready to devour her with her ill temper and hateful spirit. “Yes, I too miss the food in the old country, the sausage and cheese, and red peppers, and cherry wine.” “OOHHH the food in the old country”. Wailed Alta. Berta could almost taste her mother’s savory dolmas with meat and tomato sauce when suddenly Alta’s voice interfered. “You won’t find dolma’s in this unholy land.” All I get here is stale bread and canned fish!” “Yes”. Berta replied sadly. Sophie walked to the doorway but didn’t step outside. “Lunch is getting cold”. She chimed without looking at Alta. “Well, I am going inside” said Berta and walked inside still leaving the door open.
“How about we go explore.” Exclaimed Sophie. Berta walked to the balcony, it was a beautiful spring morning, and a breeze blew through the open apartment. It was warm but not hot. Berta walked back out to the balcony. Sophie followed behind. “This country is in ruins!” Lamented Berta as she looked ahead to the top Mount Carmel. She wasn’t usually negative but being around the old woman was beginning to leave its mark. “This country is freedom!” Corrected Sophie. She draped her strong arm around Berta’s narrow shoulder.” “I feel so lost”. Said Berta frowning. Sophie pulled her closer. “When there is no road you build one!” Exclaimed Sophie. “Now let’s see what this town has to offer!” Sophie gave Berta one last squeeze around her neck. Berta always felt safe with Sophie. She could always count on her to put her in a good mood.
Sophie called the kids. “Let’s see if we can find some Greek ruins.” Itshak darted out of the apartment first and Rachel followed but luckily Sophie managed to grab her hand right as she was leaving through the doorway. They passed the old woman on the way out, sitting on her rickety chair. Sophie ran down the first flight of stairs with the children. Berta stopped to close the door. Without even looking behind her she could feel the penetrating stare of the old woman, the felt the black magic of the woman pulling her through her turned back. She tried not to turn around but couldn’t help herself. She pretended to fiddle with her key even though the door was already locked. If she turned around, the woman would engage her, swallow her up in her net of despair. If she didn’t turn around and quickly ran down the stairs, then she would feel guilty for being unkind. Finally Berta stood and turned toward the woman. “Shalom”. Said Berta after taking a deep breath. “Ma nishma”. She continued, exhaling for a little courage. “Buenos Dias pretty lady” cackled the old woman. “It sure is a hot and miserable day”. The old woman exhaled heavily. “It’s too hot outside” spat the old woman. “I can’t tell which is worse, breathing in or breathing out. My chest hurts, and so does my big toe, my arthritis always acts up when it is humid”. Berta tried to smile but she couldn’t breathe”. “Where are you off to?” Asked the old woman. “We are just going out and about.” Replied Berta trying to be as vague as possible. “Well don’t get a sunburn”. Berta rushed down the stairs. Something about the old woman suffocated her.
As soon as they reached the lot Itshak ran ahead. Rachel followed and they were engulfed by the sweet smell of greenery. Sophie walked ahead. “Look Rosemary.” She said as she indulgently dug her face into the bristled leaves and inhaled. Bertha caught up to Sophie. The warm breeze cheered her up. Puffy white clouds hung in the sky like a Monet. Sophie kneeled down behind the Rosemary plant. It was so big she disappeared behind it. “Come to this side.” Sophie motioned. Berta followed her. Before them stood a small tomato plant, hidden right under the Rosemary. It was dotted with yellow flowers and upon closer inspection Bertha saw small green tomatoes the size of pebbles growing on the vines. Sophie dug her head into the vine then she kneeled and picked up the top of tiny shoots growing from the ground near the tomato plant and put it in her mouth. “Mmm, garlic.” She gave Berta the other half. Sophie tore off the garlic and Rosemary and placed it in her pocket. We can have some for dinner. “With the white cheese left from the care package.” Replied Sophie. They headed back to the apartment. When they got to the second flight of stairs Berta became anxious. She wanted to avoid the old woman. She was hoping the chair across her apartment would be empty but she was wrong. She saw the old woman’s skinny legs from the second floor landing. “I’ll quickly open the door and go inside with everyone else”. Berta told herself, but as she fiddled with the key, the old woman started talking to her. She opened the door and Sophie and the kids went inside. “Buenos Dias pretty lady”. Said the old woman. “Ma nishma”. Replied Berta reservedly. She wanted to dart inside her apartment but she didn’t want to be impolite. “Oh it’s just another terrible afternoon.” “We found some Rosemary. Would you like some?” Sophie picked a small bundle from her pocket and handed it to the old woman. The old woman held it to the rays that entered through the window. “Well they sure are scrawny little buggers!” Bertha’s smile flattened. She couldn’t understand why to old woman was so negative. Was she not happy to start a new life in a new country? Berta walked inside leaving the old woman to sit by herself on her chair. There she sat until evening, looking at passersby through the windows. What she thought about remains a mystery. What does one think about when they sit on a chair, twelve hours a day, seven days a week, month after month?
As the sun set Alta scuttled inside her apartment leaving her chair behind. She was hungry. She steered her way through the crowded furniture of her living room. Its furniture having collected over the years piling over itself. It must have been used as a closet for unwanted furniture. Alta felt safe here, it was just like back home where she was shoved away in the back room with the rest of the unwanted furniture.
Alta was hungry she navigated her way in the dim shadows to find her matches that lay on the counter the kitchen. She slid the box open, there were only two matches left. “I need to get more matches.” Maybe Berta will pick some up for me at the corner store. Alta opened her drawer and found a Palestinian pound. “Yes, I will do that tomorrow.” She then grabbed a can of sardines from the pantry, with the small key attached with it she rolled the lid back, and then she ripped off a piece of the challah that lay on her kitchen counter for the past week. She ate standing up next to the kitchen counter by her oil lamp.
Alta laid on her back and starred into the darkness before her. Her back hurt. Her arthritis was acting up again in her left knee and her feet were too cold. She was too full from that sardines but also hungry. They were too fishy. Oh I wish I was a horse. They are the lucky ones. When they get old someone shoots ‘em, puts ‘em right out of their misery. I wish that soldier didn’t spare me. He should’ve just shot me then and there. Put me out of my misery. “Oh I wish I was a horse!” Her legs tapped up and down moving the couch from side to side. She stood up and then laid back down. “Oh I wish I were a horse”. She said one last time before finally drifting into an uncomfortable sleep.
That night Berta couldn’t sleep. Visions of the old woman haunted her. She heard her cackle in her ears so loudly it was like the woman was coughing right into her ear. The odor of stale fish hung in her nostrils. Berta shuddered. The woman was noxious, repulsive, yet at the same time intoxicating with her sad self -pity. Berta felt sorry for the woman, yet she also hated her. Are they not the same thing? Berta turned to Sophie, her face was soft and serene. Her breath was even and natural. She slept soundly. Nothing ever seemed to vex her. Not even the old woman. Berta couldn’t understand why the old woman had no effect on Sophie. It was like she had imaginary armor protecting her from the ill of Alta. Sophie was resilient. She had inner strength. Berta had none.
It was nine o’clock in the morning. Alta sat in her old wooden rickety chair in her doorway and coughed loudly. Then she inhaled deeply hoping someone would hear her but no one came. Her cough grew louder and more obnoxious. Finally she fell off her chair face down on the cold white and black tile floor. “Help!” Berta rushed out to help the old woman. She was hoping to sleep longer but she couldn’t leave Alta suffering on the floor. Finally secured in her chair Berta asked her how she was feeling. “Buenos Dias pretty lady”, cackled Alta, spreading her lips, exposing her toothless grin. “I’m almost out of matches. If I give you a pound will you run to the corner store and buy me a box? Berta looked at her and thought for a moment. “All that coughing just to get my attention so that I could buy you a box of matches?” Berta realized that all the ruckus made by the old woman was just to get attention. Berta, who was about to take the pound and immediately run to the store to get the matches for the old woman suddenly paused. “You know Alta, it’s a beautiful day, why not walk to the store and get them yourself”. Then she went inside, closing the door behind her.
Alta continued to sit on the chair staring at the closed door before her. The sun descended through the windows and the air began to cool. It was time for her to go inside. She made her way to the couch for the night. Her back hurt. Her arthritis was acting up again in her left knees and her feet were too cold. She was too full from the tuna she ate for dinner but also hungry. “Oh I wish I was a horse. They are the lucky ones. When they get old someone shoots ‘em, puts ‘em right out of their misery. I wish that soldier didn’t spare me. He should have just shot me then and there. Put me out of my misery. “Oh I wish I was a horse!” Her legs kicked up and down moving the couch from side to side. She stood up and then laid back down. “Oh I wish I were a horse”. She said one last time before finally drifting into an uncomfortable sleep.
Suddenly, a sound came from the buffet at the far end of the room. “Tip, Tip, Tap, Tap Chirp. Chirp, Tss, Tss”. Alta picked up her oil lamp and lit it her last her match. “Tip, Tip, Tap, Tap Chirp. Chirp, Tss, Tss”. The sound was coming from inside the buffet. It was a mouse. “I’m gonna get you! She yelled, and tripped over the coffee table. Her lamp flew and hit the ceiling and fell sideways on the coffee table and blew out. It was completely dark. With her strong arms, Alta steadied herself against the coffee table and managed to stand. “Tip, Tip, Tap, Tap Chirp. Chirp, Tss, Tss”. The sound was moving in her direction. “Tip, Tip, Tap, Tap Chirp. Chirp, Tss, Tss”. Now it was right next to her. “Pitter, Patter!” The tiny footsteps were against her bare foot. Alta was a marble. Tiny whiskers’ brushed against the top of her foot. Alta was not afraid. Her foot was a statue. Alta inhaled deeply. Then, as swift as a panther her hands swooped to her foot and grabbed the mouse. The mouse stared back at her with its beady black eyes. It was not afraid. Alta brought him to her face. The mouse chirped in defiance. In a fit of rage Alta squeezed its neck until it snapped and the mouse lay dead in her hands. She sat on the couch and starred at the poor soul and cried. Not for the mouse, but for herself and her lifetime of loneliness.
The next morning as the sun came up Alta went to her old rickety wooden chair in her doorway. She desperately wanted to talk about last night’s adventure but no one was out. Still, it was early in the morning. She plopped herself on her chair and waited. It was now nine o’clock. Bertha’s door remained closed. She could hear voices on the other side of the door and the water going through the pipes. Surely they would open the door soon. It was a beautiful day and she was sure the kids would want to go play in the garden. Plus, they can’t go two days without groceries, and what about the Greek’s who just moved in downstairs. Surely they would want to go downstairs to visit them. Alta waited on her rickety chair. Still the door remained closed. The sun grew heavy in the sky and started to droop behind the Mount Carmel. It was now evening, time to go inside. “What a conceited woman”. Alta thought. “Who does she think she is? I wouldn’t want her to buy me matches anyway”. She picked up her old rickety chair and took it with her when she went inside. “There is no way that bitch is getting her filthy paws on my chair.” She thought, and slammed the door behind her.