(Set-up: Miriam and her family have been dislocated by the war. She is walking to Jerusalem to seek medical help for her daughter and is all too aware that she might meet up with the doctor she loved. Actual combat of World War One has not reached the city but the wounded men of Turkey's army are everywhere.)
They smelled Jericho long before they saw it. It’s the pomegranates, she thought, and apricots and bananas ripening on the trees. So many memories are entwined with that sweetly perfumed air. There’s no harm in remembering how it was, is there? I can summon up his face so quickly, the face whose presence blocks out all other life. Oh, no . . . it just occurred to me, he could be dead like all the others. Perhaps he contracted cholera. He treated people every day and it would be difficult to escape the germs. If I could see him one more time just to assure myself that he’s well. She pulled Nadia into the first church they saw and prayed fervently that Max was alive.
It was a shock to see the effects of war in Jerusalem. The streets were strewn with the wounded. Men of every description – Turks and Arabs and Germans – lying in filth, begging for medical attention. There was no one to give it to them. Miriam wanted to put her sack down immediately and place at least a cloth under a wounded head. It was impossible not to feel compassion. Along with the men lying about, there were many more on foot – ragged, weary men with frightened eyes, wearing the tattered uniform of Turkey, mumbling advice, urging those that could hear them to flee for their lives. You could smell death and desperation. There were long lines outside several large buildings and when Miriam inquired as to what they were for, she learned they were soup kitchens being run by the American Colony, the same charitable people who had housed Esa when she was running the shop. She realized how hungry she was and decided to stand there, too, pulling Nadia to her when fights would break out, which they frequently did as the hunger-crazed populace waited for food.
After they had eaten, they started to walk to the office of the doctor that had been recommended by Spiridum such a long time ago. The location was in the Old City, back in the Muslim quarter, near Herod’s Gate. She decided to walk outside of the wall, where it was less congested. Short of walking in the middle of the road, it was impossible to move more than a few feet without some poor soul tugging on her skirts. A wounded man was begging for water and the pleading in his eyes stopped her. She bent down to place her own waterskin to his lips, holding the back of his head. Then something, a premonition, a flutter in her heart, made her look up and standing before her – as if it were inevitable – was Max.
She laid the man down gently and stood. Her instinct was to reach for him . . . but no! . . . oh, Max . . . for a moment, in her dazed and weakened state, she wasn’t certain . . . her heart was beating unnaturally. Max, Max! She was trembling and nothing would stop it. Trembling with joy but also . . . I must tell him everything. I’ve been waiting to tell him. The possibility of being consoled by this man who had known her every intimate need opened all the ghastly hurts of the past year; grief and pain washed over her anew and tears began to roll down her cheeks.
“Esa’s dead,” she whispered to break the awful silence. She wanted so much to embrace him that she distracted herself with images of loss and pain.
“Oh, no . . .”
“And my father . . .”
“My poor, poor darling . . .”
“And so many others, Max, so many.”
“I know. I know.” She saw that he was exhausted. His eyes, once so confident, were bewildered. The whites were streaked with tiny red lines and the circles around them a dusky purple color. He must hardly eat or sleep.
“Where is the rest of the family?”
“They’re in Transjordan.” She remembered that it was his note that had sent them away. “We left as you told us to do. I’m sure you saved our lives.”
“You’re here alone?”
“With my daughter.” They both looked down to Nadia who had placed her face against her mother’s skirt and was holding it with one hand and sucking her thumb with the other. For one thrilling moment Miriam considered telling him. You’re looking at your daughter. Our daughter. See, she has your mouth, your brow, your coloring. You should know her, Max. Her temperament is so much like you. She bit her lips and looked away. Telling him would hurt so many people and it would only serve her own selfish purposes. It would be a terrible mistake.
Right away, he couldn’t take his eyes off the little girl. He bent down and took her sweaty palm in his. She let go of her mother’s skirt and put her hands to her sides, not shrinking from his stare. “So you’ve come to Jerusalem with your mother, is that it?”
“We’re here to visit the doctor,” piped up Nadia in her high but definite voice. “Sometimes I make a lot of noise when I breathe and it scares my baba. He says it’s because I don’t eat what I must. But I do . . . I do,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t cough for many days but baba doesn’t remember those times. He remembers only when I cough a great deal.”
Max took a deep breath, straightened and turned away. The sight of that pathetically thin child, her shoes so scuffed it was impossible to determine their original color, talking so rapidly touched him beyond words. He had to blink to hold back the tears.
He picked Nadia up and, using her as a buffer between them, placed his free arm around Miriam and pressed himself toward both of them. He was making small hurt sounds, weeping as if he didn’t know how. Miriam’s tears were silent.
To her credit, Nadia did not move or cry out or ask any questions.
Max pulled apart and set Nadia on the ground. “Do you have a place to stay?”
“I was going to ask Father Alphonse after we saw the doctor.”
“The doctor? What doctor?”
She was embarrassed to admit she didn’t even remember his name, just the spot where his office was located. “He’s a specialist in allergies. I had received his name before the war but now I’ve forgotten it. His office is on Ararat Road.”
“Allergies.” He bent down again, took Nadia’s chin between his fingers to steady her and pulled down her eyelids. “What is your name?” he asked her.
“My name is Nadia.”
“Tell me,” he said, putting his hands around her waist, “do you have a pet? A dog?”
“Why do you want to know?” Nadia was obviously delighted by the attention of the handsome stranger. For the last year, no one had really been eager to have a conversation with her.
“Because that might be the cause of your coughing. Perhaps the nights that he sleeps near you, his dander – the dust and hair that he shakes off – might make you cough. Does he sleep near you?”
“Sometimes.” She looked unconvinced. “You think Jilly makes me cough? That’s silly.”
“It’s all right. Bring her to the hospital. I’ll examine her.” He looked meaningfully into Miriam’s eyes. “She’s so poised and talkative for her age. She couldn’t be more than four.”
“How did you know? I am four.”
“Really? Only four?” He feigned surprise. “But you speak so well.”
“We really must be going,” said Miriam avoiding his eyes. “We’ll go to the clinic.” She pulled Nadia’s hand forcefully.
“Please stay there.” His eyes were saying that he wouldn’t do anything to cause her anguish. “Don’t put her through any more stress. I’ll find a place for both of you to sleep.”
“Max, I couldn’t. You must be working day and night. You look so fatigued. I don’t want to add to your burdens. I . . . I . . . oh, Max . . . I’ve longed . . .” There was so much she wanted to tell him but how? And for what purpose? She could not betray Nadeem all over again. Her will was so fragile in his presence. She began to wring her hands and bounce the knuckles against her chin in agitation.
“Shhh . . . I know. You won’t be adding to my burdens. You’ll be helping me. Miriam I need nurses desperately. Please stay and help. For every man I treat there are five others who go unattended. Please. I need you.
“I can’t stay long. My family is waiting . . .” She was like a captured bird, anxious and ready to take flight. “They need me . . . we just came to see about Nadia because her father is worried that she might choke in her sleep . . . that we might not always hear her in the night.”
“Stay as long as you can. Come.” He picked up the dusty sack she had been carrying, flung it over his shoulder and then, noticing that Nadia was sagging with fatigue against her mother’s skirt, picked her up, too. The little girl’s head fell immediately onto his shoulder. Her forehead, still wrinkled with anxiety, nestled in the curve of his neck. Within seconds, she was fast asleep against him.
Miriam felt a constricting fear all the way to the hospital. What would happen when Nadia was left to sleep and they were free to touch? The idea of being alone with him terrified her. When they reached the hospital, however, it was so congested with people, all pleading for help that he only had time to show them to a small cubicle with a single cot before rushing off. “Use my apartment to wash and then come to the wards. There are uniforms in the supply closet. I don’t know how clean they are. Even the laundress can’t be spared from helping the wounded.”
After two days on the dusty road, she welcomed the soak in a tub of water. How long had it been since she had such luxury? She stayed submerged until the water cooled and she felt chilled and then dried herself slowly, looking at the body that she hadn’t been aware of for months. How thin she was . . . bones . . . just bones. Her eyes looked double their size in that emaciated face. How could he possibly find her attractive? Perhaps it was to the good. In any case, there was no time for thinking now. The cries of pain and human anguish coming from the vestibule were constant and threatening. There was an air of desperation and the possibility of violence was palpable. She dressed quickly in the familiar striped dress and bib apron, tiptoed to check on the sleeping Nadia and went to do what she could.
For the next five days, there was no thought of anything but saving lives and alleviating the suffering of the wounded. Blood was everywhere. It was surprising the way it fell – yes, fell – insidiously out of the body, soaking everything quickly in that heart sickening stain. Every hour there were more men with ragged angry stumps where their legs and hands had been. The filthy shreds of their clothing were plastered to gaping wounds. And the screams. The screams!
She held an enamel bucket and heard the unearthly padded thud of dropping fingers and toes, a hand and, once, a sight that changed forever her memory of horror – a baby boy’s shelled leg, the knee still round and dimpled, sawn off. Sawn off as vigorously as a piece of lifeless, stubborn meat. There was no room for lust in this context. And yet, it was always on her mind. She yearned for him at every instant and the knowledge of it made her desolate and despairing. Twice, at the edge of exhaustion, he wept tears of frustration in her arms. More often, they did no more than hold each other briefly in silent sorrow.
As for Nadia, her life improved. As Max had surmised, her difficulty had to do with the animal dander, which he quickly concluded after exposing her. As long as she kept away from the dog, she had no further breathing problems and Max entrusted her with small errands, advising her with solemnity that she was to report directly to him. She quickly established herself in the long corridors, thrilled with the activity and with the importance of being needed. She lived for that moment in the day when Dr. Max would pick her up in his arms and say very seriously, “You are doing a wonderful job. We couldn’t get along without you.”
On those infrequent days when the stream of wounded slowed, the hospital staff would canvas the overflowing halls for those who were ill but had not required surgery. Miriam was given a corner of the largest ward and had been sponging an old Arab man who outwardly showed no signs of trouble but was running a persistent fever.
“Sister, sister,” he beckoned her near his face so he could whisper. “Please . . . shhh, listen,” he was whispering unnecessarily because no one was eager to overhear. “I need something. Can you get it for me?”
“What is it? Are you in pain? What is it I can get for you?”
“Zeit u zatar. And hot bread. I know where you can find it . . . shhh, listen carefully and I will tell you.”
He must be delirious, she thought. He wanted bread with oil and spice. “Are you in pain?” she asked again, not knowing what else to say.
“Sister, sister . . .” he continued in that same conspiratorial manner. “Zeit u zatar and bread. I know where you can get it for me. Please. Make an old man happy.”
She saw that he was serious. “I can bring you food if you’re hungry.”
“No, no. I don’t want food. Please, just listen. I know where you can get it.”
There was no sensible way to justify filling the old man’s whim when there was so much to do but his manner touched her. He was old and frail and he wanted a favor.
“Tell me where to get it,” she said.
“It’s underground.” He made her bring her face very close to his. “In back of David Street near the old suq . . . the old suq,” he emphasized. “You know it? Where they used to sell the meat?”
“Yes, I know it.”
“The last building to the right. There are steps down. Knock three times and tell her to give you something for Nassam. You do that for me?”
“Yes, I will.”
She hated going out into the streets. She had to shake herself loose from begging hands knowing she was powerless to help. She had tried on several occasions to walk to Tamleh to see her mother but the road was cordoned off and she was turned back. Yet she slipped out and did as the old man had instructed and, sure enough, after hearing a guarded response from behind the closed door, a well padded arm with at least a dozen gold bracelets jangling delicately passed out a packet of warm food that Miriam delivered immediately to her patient. She didn’t have time to watch him open the package but he smiled at her with such gratefulness – it was a deeply satisfying moment.
Within the next few days, she repeated this errand three times and the third time she delivered the warm, fragrant packet, the old man held up his hand, asking her to wait. He reached under the bed and brought up a small cotton bag that had seen better days. “I’m going to die soon,” he said simply, as if the event was inevitable and he had accepted it, “and you have been very kind to me. Please, sister. Take this bag. It’s all I have . . . there’s a little money in it . . . Turkish money . . perhaps the value is no good now but also there’s a deed, a lawful deed. Shhh . . . it’s all right, don’t say anything. Just listen. I made a little paper and one of the doctors witnessed it and signed it. The deed is for you. It’s yours. Thank you, sister. You’re a good woman. God bless you.”
Wonderful sample from a wonderful book.ReplyDelete
Consuelo, you always make me feel I'm part of what you're writing. Your words and descriptions make it so easy to be there in my mind. Excellent excerpt.ReplyDelete