Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Top of the Stairs

BY YARDENNE GREENSPAN

One Tuesday morning Abraham Melkin wakes up, as usual, at 8am. He feels the urge to write; one that he has not felt in weeks. He must wake Rachel up, so she might take him down the stairs to his study. When he and Rachel settled in Jerusalem fifty years ago, he spent months working on the house. The neighborhood of Yemin Moshe was the first to be built outside the walls of the old city, and the house was just a pile of bricks. Abraham created an unusual structure that he admired—the bedrooms on the first floor and the rest of the house down the stairs. The structure matched the topography of the neighborhood, built on the slope of a mountain, the streets leveled on planes. He could sit in his study or living room, look through the window at the old city across the valley and see the walls’ eternal presence before him. A place for food, gathering and work, and another place for sleep, he used to say whenever he walked down the white marble stairs. But now he is 91 years old. For the past five years blood flow to his legs has slowed down, making them painful and unreliable. He falls down a lot, his large, heavy body tumbling down, gut first; and it is up to Rachel, 84 years old, strong and athletic but much smaller than he is, to pick him up and set him off again. She does this by supporting his back with one hand and pulling him by his arm with the other, her dark hair hiding her face as she leans over him. The stairs have lately proven treacherous, and so now he shakes Rachel awake so she may lead him down and then return to bed—which she does, without even a thought, as if it were just another part of sleep.

Abraham sits at his computer, the screen in front of him presenting an unfinished paragraph describing his arrival in the oldest synagogue in Venice, immediately after its liberation at the end of WWII, as part of the Jewish Brigade of the British military. He climbed up the crumbling stone steps with the rest of his troop—the very first Jews to set foot in the place after years of occupation. “Step lightly!” they called to one another, “you can break your neck on these things!” But they couldn’t help themselves from rushing up, their hearts leaping, to the heavy wooden doors. They pushed them open and walked into the dust. The place had been pillaged and used for ammunition storage, but part of the painted windows survived, the bima was still standing. The group separated, each soldier walking by himself along the walls. They couldn’t stop touching everything, confirming it with their fingertips. They converged again in front of the Torah ark, and Abraham was the only one brave enough to gently move the red curtain and look behind it.

“It’s here,” he said, his voice breaking. He reached in and removed the Torah scrolls from the ark. Spreading them open, he turned around, facing Jerusalem.

The next day, the Brigadier General went in with journalists and photographers to do the same thing in an official capacity. Smiling at the camera, he opened the door, he touched the painted windows, he brushed the curtain aside, he carried the Torah. He liberated the synagogue for the world to see. Abraham’s troops had no cameras, no acknowledgement. It’s up to him now to show it.

We left the synagogue, and then what? What happened then? Abraham thinks. His fingers creak slowly across the keyboard, his mind screams all his histories at him, and for the life of him he can’t tell what followed. All the years of fighting, of learning and teaching, buzz in his ears. The constant reading and writing, the essays and the books, the theses, they burn in his retinas. In his heart, images mash up and twist about. His father catching him eating a pork sandwich during the Yom Kippur fast and punishing him by making him eat everything in the kitchen. His sister, translucent and emaciated after years in a Siberian labor camp, gnawing on a whole sausage. He sees himself in Dir Yasin, picking up Arab bodies killed by other Israeli soldiers, and then running up to his commander, out of control, bawling the injustice at him, spitting out screams; and at the same time he sees himself sitting on his army cot in the Libyan desert with his head in his hands, having just learned that, in Europe, his parents had been shot in the street.

He sits looking at these collages running in front of him, his fingers tapping the keys gently, too gently to actually hit them. He doesn’t know what came first. What led to what. His eyes stare through the bright screen and finally close with a flutter of the lids.

 

 

 

Abraham is awakened by the smell of toast. Rachel is up, and now they will have breakfast—toast, tea, and a variety of medication. Pain, blood circulation, whatever’s on the menu for today. Rachel used to be in charge of cooking and he was in charge of grocery shopping. Now she does it all. A pad is still attached to the kitchen wall with the last list she’d made for him, several years ago. Milk, eggs, chala. Forever.

After breakfast they go on their regular late-morning walk around the neighborhood.

Slowly, carefully, Rachel leads Abraham up the stairs from the dining room to the hallway, and leans him by the door, his hand supported by the entry table where Rachel now fiddles with the house keys. She then picks up his arm and puts it in hers, and they leave the house, closing the heavy wooden door behind them but leaving the iron gate open. They always leave it open when leaving the house for a short time.

This daily ritual is no less a mental exercise for her than it is a physical exercise for him, Abraham knows. There are no roads in this neighborhood, and no vehicles, but the ground, paved with Jerusalem Stone, is like a minefield—uneven and lethal with dips and swellings. While he leans on Rachel’s arm and gazes at the old neighborhood around him, she must take note of every turn, every hazardous rock sticking out from the pavement. She studies the ground like a diligent ant, calculating their route.

Outside Yemin Moshe is a new world, bustling with the honks of cars and the beeping of cellular phones. But within the confines of Abraham’s life there is holy silence. Feeling the pointy protrusions through the soles of his shoes, seeing the ancient whiteness all around him: like the whole neighborhood is coated with antique, scratchy marble; Abraham looks at the thick trunks of the trees, the black metal gratings, the vines snaking up white stone houses with red-tile roofs; at the small Armenian plaques attached to the walls of houses, the residents’ names engraved in curved, Aramaic style lettering. He feels the wind blowing through his bushes of white hair, and on the other side of the small valley he sees the walls of the old city blazing in the sun.

“Do you know, my darling,” he says, “these paths have been trod for thousands of years. Walking here, I feel that I am one with the Hebrews of Yore.”

“Do you think they also took walks with their wives?”

“Why not? They had their wife holding one of their arms, while the other hand gripped a trusty cane,” Abraham says and raises his cane slightly. “Of course, they were a lot more productive than I am.”

“That’s not quite true. They didn’t live to be our age,” Rachel says.

“No,” Abraham smiles at her. “And I’m sure their companions weren’t nearly as lovely.”

 

 

 

When they arrive home Rachel deposits Abraham on his chair in the living room. His book and reading glasses are at arm’s reach. She makes him a glass of tea with lots of sugar and lemon and places it on the table near him.

“I’m going to the market,” she says. “You’ll stay right here, alright?”

“You don’t need to worry.”

The look in her eyes tells him she does. She’s afraid he might fall. But she must trust him, and so she leaves. Abraham sips at his tea, spilling some on the belly of his shirt.

“Every single day,” he mutters, wiping at his shirt with the back of his hand. He puts the cup back on the table and picks up his book. He reads for a few minutes before dozing off.

 

 

 

A moment later he wakes up and something is wrong. The living room, covered from top to bottom with art and history, is not his. These are not the oil paintings made by his uncle after fleeing Poland for New York; not the stone sculptures he and his wife had collected while traveling in India and Greece. Where is he? His fists push into the seat of the chair to lift his colossal mass and his fingers grab at the tip of his cane. He goes to the window and looks outside, at the afternoon sun shining over the wall of the old city, over the tower of David. What is this? Not Jerusalem. Can’t be. And where is his wife? Where is everything?

“Rachel?” Nothing. She is not there. Someone took her, or she had to escape. He must repair this.

He lumbers over to the marble stairs and looks up, and though this clearly isn’t his home, he knows that the door is up there, and he knows where the keys lie on the entry table by it. He knows that the small key locks the heavy wooden door and that the larger silver one locks the iron gate. He also knows that he hasn’t been the one to open those, to feel the warm wood and the cool iron on his palms, for the past five years.

 

 

 

He leaves the house, and, not sure how he knows to do this, locks the metal gate behind him, knowing that this is goodbye.

 

The white, jagged pavement; the still, heavy houses – they are like an astronaut’s hallucination, the landscape of a nightmare. But he must walk through it, must move. He lifts his legs like tree trunks, balancing the bulk of his body like a sad, old acrobat walking a tightrope. Without Rachel beside him gravity is ten times stronger. Abraham plugs his cane in the cracks between each white stone, his grip sweating out the wooden handle. Twice he almost falls—one foot tripping the other and the cane getting tangled between them. Rachel is nowhere to be found. Neither is anyone else. He is a man among no men, and his woman is gone missing. This place rings a bell, but it is as if in a dream—he knows of it. He recognizes only half-things: the numbers on houses, the first five steps leading up to the next street, where he doesn’t know his wife is shopping for groceries at the supermarket. He looks up these steps. The arm that used to lean on Rachel now hangs dead at his side. He doesn’t know why, but knows he must climb the steps.

It is harder than leaving Poland. Harder than war. Here he must use all of his energy to not die. The muscles of his legs creak and the cane trembles under his weight. His head tightens. His ears burn. His heart skips a beat. Sweat gets in his eyes. This takes minutes, decades. Ten stairs, and he is at the top. This place feels different. Higher, elevated. It is the right place. He steadies his breathing.

“Rachel!” he calls, “Rachel? My wife? Where?”

But instead a young man is walking towards him. A stranger in white. “Rachel,” Abraham tries again, quieter than he’d like. “Rachel, come.” The young man smiles serenely. His skin is tan, his eyes a sun-burnt green. His face is encircled by rough, blazing, black curly hair.

“Can I help you, sir?” the man asks.

“My wife,” Abraham’s voice screeches.

“You’re lost,” the man nods at Abraham. Not a question. He reaches out his arm, clad in white linen. Abraham grabs it without thinking. The man wants to know if Abraham can tell him his address. Apparently, he can.

 

 

 

Rachel stands outside the house when they arrive, her face pale.

“I’m returning your boy,” the young man says.

Rachel grabs at the buttons of Abraham’s shirt, right at the stain. “The gate was closed,” she says. “The gate was closed!”

 

 

 

That night, Rachel puts cream on her face in front of the bedroom mirror. Abraham’s head is propped up against a tower of pillows, and he listens as she explains what the doctor told her: that his disorientation was a side effect of his new pain medication. That it affects some people that way and that it shouldn’t happen again if he stops taking the drug.

“So that’s it. Over, behind us,” Rachel says, screwing the cap on the tub of cream and slipping into her side of the bed. She smiles, says good night, kisses the top of his head, and turns off the bedside lamp.

In the dark, Abraham knows this isn’t right. This is not the time to be here. This, he thinks, is the time to be somewhere else, somewhere higher. And he knows, there in the dark, that he should have been left at the top of the stairs.